3,000 pink carnations standing upright on the stage. A dreamscape! My “spirit rose, …. let it be glory, let it be ruin!”[i]
A flame grew from just a spark
When I found romance in the dark with you.
In the dark, with Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch, nature has been brought indoors, and in the process it has changed its makeup. Petals and stems were plastic (all the better to fray the hem of your evening attire, my dear), and unruly wilderness was ordered in near-perfect rows. In this fake field, carnations grow to a uniform height with no colour deviation: flesh incarnations. Pink carnations to say, ‘I’ll be there for you.’ Carnations, artificial or otherwise, the symbol of Bausch’s fascination with love.
My own love affair with the unique humanist core of Bausch began late and unknowingly. Introduced by Pedro Almodóvar in his film, Talk to Her (2002), which featured her performing in her own work with Malou Airaudo, the heart-breaking Café Müller (1978). It was followed by Wim Wenders’ 2011 film Pina, which “after half a year of intensive work, and only two days before the planned 3D rehearsal shoot, the unimaginable happened: Pina Bausch died on June 30th 2009, suddenly and unexpectedly.”[ii] Caught in an exquisite and demanding tribute, within the dark embrace of the cinema my eyes were opened. Film had introduced us, and I was keen for more. Here for the first time in sixteen years, and exclusive to the Adelaide Festival of Arts*, the Australian premiere of Nelken was worth the wait I knew it would be.
In Bausch’s ‘space where we can encounter each other,’ generous as it is confronting, charming as it is unsettling, open as it is restrained, the landscape was raw, private, unblinking, and real. It feels a little like recounting a dream. Also, given Bausch’s apparent "mistrust of words [that] made her rely all the more on her eyes, but in a very particular, unique way of her own. She honed her gaze into an extraordinarily sensitive tool for recognizing and analyzing everything we say and express with our movements and gestures, for everything we reveal about ourselves through them.”[iii] In showing us an “interpretation of our humanity that was wholly new and unexplored,” her work “hit[s] us right through the heart.” Gesture, her palette.
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.
“Most dancers have to stop dancing in their 20s and 30s — it’s not a sustainable lifestyle. That’s something that’s unique about Pina’s work; we have stayed here, and lived our lives as dancers,”[iv] affirms Australian born Julie Shanahan, who joined the company in 1988. At 53, she poured her 33 years of experience into a beautiful moment of heightened, quite literally, scene-stealing. Shanahan climbed atop the shoulders of a fellow male dancer, and magically lengthened her scarlet-red skirt so as to cover his body and reveal only their hairy and muscly calves. She appeared monstrously majestic as she towered over Michael Strecker, challenging his control during a game of Red Light, Green Light. But of course, being in the landscape that is Bausch, we are not just in the playground, but facing up to oppression and persecution, grasping for love, challenging the restraints placed upon freedom. As German born Strecker, who has been with the company since 1997, later fantastically spits at the audience, “this is a complete waste of time. You’re yawning already, and I’ve got sore feet,” before hauling a younger and fresher model out on the stage to suggestively peel potatoes to the delicious strains of Billie Holiday. “Better for you; better for me.” Four stuntmen in padded suits take to the stage in a tumble in a bid to sate the audience and it works. More fool you.
Encompassing everything from the swaying jubilation of a Brazilian marching band and the xylophone-tinkling Pink Panther (Shades of Sennet) by way of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, elation always comes laced with sorrow, but above all, hope remains a permanent fixture. Typified by Scott Jennings’ bewitching solo in sign language to Sophie Tucker performing The Man I Love.
Jennings’ drew a smile upon his face using both index fingers. He traced a curve at the bicep for ‘strength,’ and for ‘love,’ his arms crossed across his torso, fists closed, making a letter ‘x’, or was that a kiss. “Just meant for two,” his right hand swept forward to hold up his index and middle fingers. Suited and solemn, standing in a field of yearning, he juggled his hands left and right to portray ‘maybe’ and it was as beguiling as it was honest, this picture. “Maybe I shall meet him Sunday,” he radiated both palms facing forward in slow circles, like rotations of the sun or washing a spot off the window, and for all the world you wished it so.
Whether permitted to dance on the table top or hunched beneath, I will carry the overwhelming sense of optimism and resilience with me for a long time. Though each performance was technically played the same, Thursday night slapped me across the right check (while rubbing my eyes in chopped onion) and Friday night caressed the left (while giving me a hug), both colouring my dreams ever since. If I close my eyes, I can still see the charming seasonal procession of the dancers weaving to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five’s West End Blues.
“I became a dancer… because I thought it is easier than speaking.”
“I became a dancer because I fell in love with a dancer.”
“I became a dancer… because I didn’t want to be a soldier.”
Just as the dancers revealed, with arms in increasingly absurdist fifth position, why they became dancers, in own revelation, I went to see Nelken because of love.
* Bausch’s Australian debut was in Adelaide 35 years ago.
[i] George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of Father and Son, (London: Penguin Classics, 1999), p. 42.
[ii] Pina, the film by Wim Wenders, ‘About the Movie’.
[iii] Wim Wenders’, on 4th of September, 2009, at the memorial ceremony for Pina Bausch in the Wuppertal Opera House.
[iv] Julie Shanahan in interview with Alan Brissenden, ‘Nelken’s Adelaide Connection’, The Adelaide Review, 2nd March, 2016.