new york

Pina Bausch

brooklyn academy of music

While Pina Bausch’s work is consistently surprising, it is not altogether unpredictable. The four works seen here in their New York premieres—The Rite of Spring, 1975, Café Müller, 1978, Bluebeard, 1977, and 1980, 1980—all deal with the ancient motif of “Death and the maiden,” or the Persephone myth. In addition, all exhibit a Wagnerian leisure in making their points, and making them again and again, till all meaning the artist has access to has been wrung out of them; meanwhile, the intensity of concentration rises in an almost demonic arc. Still, in other ways the four works are entirely different. I am here describing 1980, a work that revives the Dada performance vocabulary and brings it to life with astonishing vigor.

Except for a low platform, the stage is stripped bare back to the rear wall of the theater and covered with sod and grass. The light is dim. A youth enters, sits on the platform, and begins slowly, catatonically eating. Couples enter as a Beethoven adagio is heard. Slow, droopy ballroom dancing begins. The dancers parade through the audience and back. One woman is separated from the others, who say goodbye to her, though all remain on stage. The magician Death enters to show his trick of making threads longer or cutting them short, as the Fates do in Greek mythology. A woman undresses a man and gives him a hotfoot. A woman kisses a man till his face is red with lipstick. Two or three things are going on at once now, and then suddenly it’s ten: people are eating, dressing, undressing, exchanging clothes, cutting things on plates, moving in every direction. A nearly naked girl is hiding demurely behind this person or that. Mae West is imitated. The stage becomes the medium. It gathers its energies into a center which breaks into two centers, then three, then diffuses into a loose allover texture, suddenly empties, is still, is cut slowly by one movement, then two, five, ten. It fills, empties, fills, empties. Children’s games are played. There is more slow droopy ballroom dancing. Characters emerge and speak to the audience. “My granny is in the sky. Do you know how she got there?” “The other day our parrot did something that made me wild!” Regressions into childhood spread through the cast. Slapstick laughter shakes the hall. “The boy stood on the burning deck” is recited, while a comedienne in a raincoat flashes the audience. Work of different kinds is going on in different parts of the stage. People run in and out on various errands. They strip, change clothes, moon the audience, circulate, disappear. Women handle men like babies, dressing and undressing them. The center roams everywhere. “Hi kids,” a man says, “O boy, I’m rarin’ to go!” Jokes flow around as esthetic elements. A man repeatedly interrupts a woman with formulaically stylized gestures, while actions everywhere stutter and repeat. “When I came in,” a woman declares, “everything had already happened.” Judy Garland’s voice, at high volume, sings “Over the Rainbow” as a man, alone on stage, lies down and covers himself completely except for his bare ass. He is sunbathing. Others enter and do the same. A woman in Arab garb sunbathes with only her eyes exposed and sunglasses on. All over the stage people lie and sit in odd mute postures, taking the sun of the land beyond the rainbow as the music rides heavily over them. Persephone enters and says, “I want to go home.” The men throw a woman in the air over and over. Repeatedly she looks at the audience from twenty feet up, her hair flying around her intense gaze. Other women are thrown about by men in various fashions. The stage is darkening. Dead girls are scattered around the grass. The house lights come up. It is intermission.

Part 2 is at first more openly comedic; it becomes Monty Python. This is the weakest part of the work, but it passes. The players parade again through the audience while a gymnast silently works out on parallel bars at the distant rear of the stage. An actor sneaks through the audience teasing selected persons. The magician appears and again displays his inexplicable cuttings and reparations. A girl dances with a sprinkler. Women wrap corpses. A woman shakes Jell-O on a plate, then shakes her breasts. A shot gunman staggers around a grave. Another girl juggles green and red Jell-O. A girl strips, a boy eats, a Chinese girl is buried. A butler serves tea through the audience till called on stage to pour. Gazing across the proscenium he says, “Would anyone else like tea?” He returns to serve the audience. An actor tries to disgust the front row by playing naughtily with his food. The Chinese girl is buried again. The staggering gunman sits down at last at a table by the grave. Lights flash and a frenzied jitterbugging takes possession of everyone. They jiggle insanely, then slow flawlessly into the droopy tragical ballroom dancing again. Persephone reappears and the others gather slowly into a group and stare at her. The lights go down.

Some negative criticism of 1980 has come from dance critics who feel, rightly I think, that it is not dance but theater. Once the point is granted, one might begin to criticize the very quality of the work that has earned it such popularity, namely that it is so easy to like, that it has gone so far in the direction of the popular entertainment. But such a criticism, I think, is rendered irrelevant by the quality of the wit and stagecraft, which constantly embody insight even in their appeal to the familiar vocabulary of Dada performance and avant-garde theater. In a sense 1980, like Richard Foreman’s Egyptology, 1983, is a post-Modern recapitulation of 20th-century avant-garde theater. But the audience did not for the most part experience it that way. It felt like a new work, or like one that has showed us something anew and restored interest and confidence in areas of our esthetic that had seemed dull from familiarity.

Thomas McEvilley