Romance in the Dark

Recently landed: Romance in the Dark, Gracia's written response to Pina Bausch's piece, Nelken (Carnations), for Fjord Review

In Nelken, created in 1982, five years before the Berlin Wall fell, movement was initially imposed as the dancers stepped, almost gingerly, through the artificial wilderness with their armchairs held aloft. As with all her work, it is ‘not how people move, but what moves them,’ and until the suited official that was the achingly elegant Andrey Berezin asked for your ‘passport, please,’ you’ve ‘permission to hop.’ In the transitional space, tangled in dream before you open your eyes, much of Nelken balanced. With its stalking, almost menacing introduction undercut by the jaunty second theme, the East St Louis Toddle-O further emphasised the balancing act Bausch favoured: where happiness can wobble over into sadness, where freedom can tip into a controlled state. As the low clarinet of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra growled the music conjured what Ellington described as “an old man, tired from working in the field since sunup, coming up the road in the sunset on his way home to dinner. He’s tired but strong, and humming in time with his broken gait.” Sweetness, in music as on stage, is always undercut with grittiness. Cue: the appearance of four suited officials and their accompanying German Shepherds. In the blink of an eye, an innocent childlike arena revealed itself to be a police state. Beautiful men in beautiful dresses freely tipping themselves in the air in playful hop was now deemed unsuitable: ‘put some decent clothes on.’ The offence: punishable by spanking. Humorous acts have given over to improper and finally now teeter on the edge of shameful and humiliating. For as much as Bausch lets you sit back and marvel at and celebrate beauty, if you slouch too comfortably in your seat, you’ll soon be pulled upright brutally by your collar. You may even find yourself ejected from the theatre altogether. Her infamous gaze continues to be not just on the dancers on the stage; it is also fixed on the audience.

Titillation comes at a price. And nowhere was this better illustrated than in Fernando Suels Mendoza’s ‘okay, you want to see something?!? You want to see ménage?!? Here. Look! Ménage! Here! Ménage! Ménage! Ménage! Viola! What else do you wanna see!?! I can do anything!’ In a black dress with a full skirt, he angrily pounds the stage ‘performing’ for the audience who in turn applaud all the louder. Venezuelan born Mendoza, who has been with Tanztheater Wuppertal since 1995, jetés across the stage in a fury, demanding we, the insatiable audience, take responsibility for the heavy expectations we have placed on the shoulders of performers. With the rough edges of the more challenging components (read: experimental gestures and quiet, unsettling bits) smoothed over, the familiar classical steps soothed the audience like a baby being rocked to sleep. Even if the rocking was being done by an outraged performing seal balancing a ball atop its nose, it didn’t seem to bother those seated around me, rather they lapped it up, calling for more and caring little for the creaks of the performer’s body. A series of chaînés: we could read this language. To me, this brilliantly humorous scene was utterly devastating. Free to interpret the thrust of this scene how I chose, I read this as being about the inevitable fallibility of the human body. Steps become harder and take their toll. The life of a dancer is short and the price their bodies pay is high. This was Mendoza as a symbol of all dancers facing the unforgiving brutality of a body that will one day not be able to perform. Backs’ stiffen, and the ‘broken gait’ of Ellington awaits us all. 

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performing Nelken at the Adelaide Festival. (Image credit: Tony Lewis)