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Bausch's cold splash at Next Wave series

Postmodern artists love to blur the boundaries between disciplines, and nobody blurs them better than the Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal. True, it does some flat-out dancing now and then, as in Bausch's fierce interpretation of ``The Rite of Spring,'' seen during the West German troupe's first American visit last year. In other pieces, though, hours may pass with no more than a few steps you'd label ``dance'' at all.

So it is with ``Arien'' and ``Kontakthof,'' the works that opened Bausch's current run in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's popular ``Next Wave'' series. While there is plenty of movement, little of it resembles classical ballet or modern dance. People walk, run, stand, bend, shove, slouch, embrace, and come to blows.

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What glues it together is Miss Bausch's obsession with the feverish play of male-female relationships. What makes it lively is her irreverent notion of stagecraft. Even the most familiar gestures take on new overtones when the floor is flooded with water or carpeted with leaves or planted with grass, as happens in her ``Arien'' and ``Bluebeard'' and ``1980,'' respectively.

The trouble with Bausch's approach is that shock and surprise tend to replace the discipline of pure dance and the articulateness of pure theater. One misses the order of Laura Dean's immaculate patterns, the rigor of Robert Wilson's soaring spectacles, the passion of Elizabeth LeCompte's tumultuous collages. Bausch's constructs of movement, image, and word have moments that strike with unexpected force. But their visual language pales by comparison to that of Merce Cunningham; their verbal language see ms minor next to the wordplay of Richard Foreman; and their disdain for dance vocabulary is less productive than the exploratory vigor of Lucinda Childs.

It's instructive that Bausch bears comparison with all the artists I've named as well as the Pilobolus Dance Theater and Le Grand Panique Circus of Paris, among others. As radical as her work is, Bausch is still swayed by the seductive momentum of increasingly familiar postmodern patterns. Her pieces are uncompromising in a grim sort of way, and contain more literal meaning than postmodern works often do. But their originality seems forced at times, and their vision is so dour it allows few friendly ove rtures to the senses or the emotions.

The latest Bausch pieces to reach American shores, ``Arien'' and ``Kontakthof,'' are like reduced versions of the epic ``1980,'' a lengthy opus that steers even further away from dance tradition than works like ``Caf'e Mueller'' and ``Bluebeard.''

While both focus on the usual Bausch theme of conflict between the sexes, ``Arien'' has a mood that is almost playful, courtesy of the large puddle that its performers slosh through -- along with two actors garbed as a hippopatamus, the most amiable figure I've seen in a Bausch work yet. ``Kontakthof'' takes place in a drab dance hall, where almost three hours of muted psychodrama are interrupted only by a short nature film. The most winning device is a series of parades across the stage, each performer

making a string of small, homely gestures. The same idea worked better in ``1980,'' where the music was jazzier and the atmosphere more manic, but it stands as one of Bausch's best metaphors for the mingling of life and art.

Hyped as a leading genius of the dance-theater world, Bausch has fulfilled only part of her promise, judging from the pieces she has offered her American audience so far. It remains to be seen whether her work will keep moving in the direction of ``1980,'' the strongest Bausch piece I've seen, or regress to the heavy hysteria of ``The Rite of Spring'' or the compulsive morbidity of ``Bluebeard.''

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Whatever the answer turns out to be, Bausch and company could surely benefit from a more rigorous vision of their own dance-theater goals.

Bausch's run in the ``Next Wave'' festival continues through this Friday with ``Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei geh"ort,'' translated as ``On the Mountains a Cry Was Heard.''

It concludes Oct. 17-22 with ``The Seven Deadly Sins,'' an evening of dance comprising the Brecht-Weill title piece and ``Don't Be Afraid.'' Michael Tilson Thomas will be the conductor.

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