new york

Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal

brooklyn academy of music

The Pina Bausch performances at BAM this year were typically varied and unexpected. The Seven Deadly Sins (1976), an evening of selections from the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill collaboration of the same title, restaged and choreographed by Bausch, asserted her sense of continuity with the early 20th-century German avant-garde, just as The Rite of Spring (originally staged by Bausch in 1975 and performed at BAM in 1984) served to relate her to the modern dance of Martha Graham. These works are, for Bausch, comparatively conventional dance theater. It is the works that are entirely her own—such as 1980 (whose American premiere was here in 1984), and this season’s performances of Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehort (On the mountain a cry was heard, 1984), and Arien (Arias, 1980)—that are often seen not as dance but an extension of avant-garde theater. Yet even in these pieces one can see that Bausch’s work remains at least partly rooted in dance; her troop are virtuosos at mimicking a variety of dance forms as well as introducing movements that appear wholly new She alternates a variety of dance and related sequences with more theatrical vignettes, usually to found music ranging from Little Richard to Beethoven.

One of the keys to Bausch’s power over an audience is that the transition from one scene to the next is rarely predictable yet usually convincing. In Gebirge (as in 1980) the structure is episodic. Scenes tend to overlap, the transition aided by conspicuous shifts in the nature of the found music. Although the transition is sometimes marked, scenes more frequently overlap, one receding into the background as another assumes the foreground. Occasionally, transitional motifs arc inserted between scenes: Bausch empties the stage, reframes it with some small action, then refills it. These reframings often have a stunning impact: a man comes out on the empty stage and scans the audience with binoculars; or a woman enters and bays at the moon—a single action that erases the previous one and reinvests the performance with a new mood or intention. The scenes themselves are often brief, one-liners. A man’s arm flies out in front of him and begins to pull him helplessly along; his friend, seeing his plight, runs in front of him and positions a chair, or his shoulder, or something else, to catch the flying hand and stop its flight. This is repeated perhaps six or eight times with a steadily intensifying arc of variation. Although each brief scene is fully realized and self-contained, it seems to maintain some satisfying connection with the next and within the whole.

Alienation is the norm in Gebirge. People treat their own and others’ limbs and heads like discrete objects. Women are consistently presented as objects of desire or of violence. The theme of the male gaze and its reification of the female underlies many of the actions, and role reversals abound: men are often in drag or being carried about like babies, and there is a conspicuous all-male corps de ballet.

Arien is structured quite differently. The stage was flooded with two inches of water, with a pool about three feet deep in a rear corner. The water prevented many types of movement, therefore determining the work’s less-episodic style: rather than a series of crisp one-liners, long streams of repetitive movements shifted about one another, which rendered the work almost overbearingly all of one piece.

Bausch’s work is Wagnerian in its spectacle and in the almost grand leisureliness with which she makes her point. There is a shared craft underlying all the pieces, yet each has a palpably different mood. Gebirge, for example, despite the fact that it has its wild moments, is on the whole a meditative piece in comparison with Arien, which traces a chaotic reversion to infancy. All of the work is ravishing in its control of the stage, the time, the audience.

Thomas McEvilley