new york

Pina Bausch

brooklyn academy of music

At first, constructing a narrative around Pina Bausch’s Two Cigarettes in the Dark, 1985, seems the only way to make sense of this grueling work. One could describe the set as an indoor pavilion at a zoo (exotic flora and fauna in one showcase, desert plants and sand in another, and tanks of goldfish in a third, all of which make up the back and side walls of the stage) and one could view the male and female dancers on stage as specimens for a study of human behavior, but developing such a scenario risks rationalizing the unrelenting cruelty to women in this technically splendid production. Men in tuxedos inflict terrible humiliations: one male chases an Ophelia-like figure, long hair and long skirts flowing behind her, with an axe, yelling “Putain! Putain!” (“Whore! whore!”); another repeatedly drags a woman by her wrist to a corner of the stage where she must pull down her white underpants, and, crouching in her high heels, pretend to urinate; several males carry inert female figures on stage—like so many broken dolls, their arms and legs dangling pathetically—and drop them on the floor. One man even uses a woman as a nutcracker; she is curled in a ball and, picking her up by the ankle, he uses her buttocks to crack a peanut shell.

Two Cigarettes in the Dark lacks the tenderness usually found at the heart of Bausch’s tales of quarreling lovers. No matter how desperate, Bausch’s men and women have always been filled with an overwhelming desire for each other, and the violence that inevitably pulls their clinging bodies apart stems from their inability to maintain intimacy. Whatever the extremes to which men and women go to damage one another, that damage has always been evenly distributed. Not in Cigarettes. The women barely come up for air before their grinning male warders invent another round of stunning, unforgettable poses with which to hold the women down. Even nudity, which in other work has served to increase the thrill of Bausch’s charged physical landscapes, is reduced to the tragic; one woman who takes her clothes off is Auschwitz-thin—two dark pennies for breasts over a thin-skinned rib cage could ignite only the most depressing of senses.

Some of Bausch’s signature vocabulary—men and women hugging the walls of the stage, sweeping arm movements, and swinging upper bodies—serves only to link dozens of atmospheric scenes that recall Marat/Sade. Formal choreography is minimal, and ensemble dance design is limited to a brilliant sequence toward the end of the two-hour-and-twenty-minute production when five couples, seated on the floor, propel themselves across the stage, swaying in unison to Revel’s La Valse. Like blind-drunk revelers, they make it across the stage, but lacking a destination, simply pile on top of each other against the wall.

This exhibition of prefeminist men and women is presented with Bausch’s customary genius for theatrical effect. White light streaks across the stage, illuminating memorable tableaux, and the 11 dancers are always mesmerizing, no matter how still. But for many, this work, choreographed in 1985, was a disappointment, given the expectations of the Next Wave festival. While it serves as an interesting example of improvisation by Bausch’s company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, and as a point of reference in the history of her oeuvre, its New York premier seemed dated. It served only to increase the desire for a fuller look at her work: for a retrospective akin to the one accorded Martha Graham earlier this year.

RoseLee Goldberg