new york

Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal

brooklyn academy of music

Set deep into the earth like hundreds of upside-down ziggurats, the breathtaking excavations at Trapani near Palermo were created by years and years of brick cutters excavating large golden blocks from its quarries. Indeed, when the cinder-block wall that entirely closed off the stage of the opera house in Pina Bausch’s Palermo, Palermo, 1990, fell backward in a cascade of masonry and dust, that town deep in the Mediterranean came back to me. Glorious, dark, and dappled with light that pours through rambling greenery, every piazza is a backdrop for the daily theater of Italian life. Church bells babble constantly, as in Bausch’s piece, and crumbling facades give way to more crumbling facades.

Though Bausch is known for her brilliant dance dramas and angst-driven characters who, despite their antipathy, can’t take their hands off one another, this three-hour work, commissioned for a festival in Palermo in 1990, was, surprisingly, a comedy. But hers was not the comedy of errors or even the satire that one might expect from so cultivated a choreographer. Rather, it was a comedy cut from the cloth that she knows best—the well-worn gestures of men and women struggling to fit together. The Italian mise-enscène explains the temperament of this work, so vastly different from her previous pieces seen in this country; Italians, as national clichés, laugh a lot and delight in the absurd; Germans, less so.

Bausch evidently enjoyed the distance between herself and this group of foreign lovers—these men and women who seemed almost to perform on separate stages. Her Italian women begged “hug me,” “kiss me,” “take my hand,” but just as insistently repeled the men when they obeyed. The men danced in a pack—all those brothers, fathers, uncles, and in-laws—and made no room in their dance formations for the females. They responded to the women only on command, and spent much of their time circling “Mama” in her black widow’s weeds, sometimes holding her aloft, like a ceiling that’s about to cave in.

A number of scenes were poignant and funny, bringing some of the flavor of the commedia dell’arte to the performance. Nazareth Pana Dero, clutching a bunch of spaghetti in her hands like a truncheon, recited precisely in heavy mid-European accent, an ode to that staple: “My spaghetti! This is my spaghetti!” At intervals throughout the evening, she and an impish blond man, Janusz Subícz, a kind of Slavic Joel Gray, read sentimental poetry and told quaint stories.

The entertainment aspect of this new work was somewhat removed from previous Bausch fare (“You mean it wasn’t grim?” said a friend when I described Palermo, Palermo). Or was it? On viewing Bandoneon, 1980, the second feature in the Tanztheater Wuppertal’s engagement, Bausch’s sense of humor was quite clear, and her decision to present these works back to back seemed a pointed one. The two showed that Bausch’s body language of love was really always rather bittersweet, and that she knows that her obsession with the minute, monotonous interactions of couples who have never experienced real intimacy has an absurd aspect as well.

Danced as always against a spectacular set (in this case in a cavernous ’40s-style café somewhere in South America, with large, fading sepia photographs of boxers hung high on the walls), Bandoneon provided some diversion from Bausch’s usual joyless search for pleasure, with dancers satirizing their own lives as performers and the training that went into their careers; each caricatured painful incidents with tyrannical dance instructors insisting on the deepest plié, the highest leg lift, the most extreme turnout; “Smile, smile, smile!” yelled one as she dunked a dancer’s head rhythmically into a bucket of water, like a clown at the circus. This earlier work became a checklist of Bausch’s movement vocabulary that we have come to know over the years: the somnambulistic walk of the men, heads half-bowed, edging their way around walls, or curling into corners; the high-heeled stomp of the women, thighs apart as they balance on turned-out tiptoe, in a motion that moves forward and backward at the same time; the reciprocal cheek slapping; the women who climb the walls, literally, using the men’s backs to leapfrog onto pillars that form the front arch of the stage; the endless repetitive coupling of men and women; and the ultimate catatonic climax— rigid women lifted into the air by men with one hand looped under their crotches, and turned slowly, like cakes on a pastry-shop stand.

Bandoneon offered a fascinating glimpse back at an earlier model of work that has become more complex and refined over time, and that has along the way adapted to the New York stage. Both works were presented in English, and many of the references in Palermo, Palermo were to American media culture, which made this distinctly European juxtaposition of sexual polemics and architectural metaphor more accessible. But, above all, these dance dramas showed the absolute consistency of Bausch’s vision; her expressive and large-scale stagings of bodies, buildings, furniture, and language, combined in a violently physical theater of ideas.

RoseLee Goldberg