Child’s Play

Tanztheater Wuppertal in “Für die Kinder...” Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Für die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen (For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow)
Tanztheater Wuppertal

Pina Bausch

Look. I’m part of the crowd gathering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House on a warm November night. The orchestra is flush with excitement; there are no little expectations here. We’ve come to see an institution: German choreographer Pina Bausch, the leading figure of the late 20th century avant-garde, master of malaise and non sequitur, producer of such iconic works as Café Müller (1978) and Nelken (1982).

The set before us, designed by Peter Pabst, is a simple white box: three walls and a ceiling that seem to compress the stage. Wall moldings conjure dollhouses and the moneyed class, while a disproportionately large window at the center and two side doors establish giant scale. Without fanfare, a man hops through the window; the dance begins. Fernando Suels joins Jorge Puerta Armenta to sit side by side on a table, the former closer to its edge than the latter. Suels begins to fall off sideways but holds his body rigid; his head is almost at the floor when Armenta catches him by the ankle and draws him back up. This is what we’ve come for: the unpredictable movement and extraordinary physicality of a company committed to rendering human threat in human scale.

The falling scene repeats, then plays out as a series of gentle gags, as when Armenta finally falls to the ground and Suels belatedly places a chair under his ass; or when the two separate, then run back to each other, arms open, only to crash headlong into each other.  The movement is playful, if doomed, and transcribed with virtuosity from Bausch’s encyclopedic Rubaiyat in a way that leaves you breathless, watching.

Look.

Bausch’s latest offering for American viewers is For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2002), a work of great beauty and skill that left me looking again for more. In scene after scene, strung together as mismatched pearls in three hours of material, she imagines the experience of time—by young and old, in the future as well as the past—as a united front of work and play, pleasure and torment, solitude and union. Children are studious in their play. Adults are alternately childlike or childish in their love games. Wisdom eludes us, but don’t worry; after all, there is a new joke and a new dress around every corner.

In gesture, architecture, and dance, Bausch toys with scale. Dancers span the entire stage in an instant, racing across the floor balanced on a skateboard and an office chair, or stand nearly still, performing detailed hand and arm moves. One dancer flutters her fingers; the entire company runs in a circle, with arms extended outward, flapping wrists like a child’s mimed bird. Yet, if the intent is to recognize childhood as a chronic condition, the discovery that we are always in the process of becoming is a hopeful one.

There are cool objects to play with. One dancer, for instance, stretches out on the floor with a pillow. Two dancers move giant glass doors back and forth, or they draw on the doors two large hearts: one sentimental, one anatomical. A dancer attempts to move from the top of one cabinet to another. Others brush their hair roughly with dust brooms. Balloons inflate, water squirts, skipping ropes launch happy women into the arms of happy men. The entire group “builds” a sand castle on a carpet.

Part of Bausch’s appeal has lain in the explicit singularity of her imagery; Tanztheater—part of a German tradition that begins with Rudolph Laban’s attention to everyday movement and continues with the political content embraced by Bausch’s former teacher Kurt Jooss—is her medium. A hybrid genre of dance and theatre, movement and speech, codified dance and ordinary movement, it is arguably the most direct of all dance forms. But this time around, the sand castle is a rather neat, prefabricated affair—the dancers add pots here and there, to little effect—and the overt statements come in modest helpings.

There are speeches about the cruelty of love and exchanges that hint at the way gender makes objects of us all.  A man repeatedly introduces his “beautiful wife,” who bites instead of kisses him on the mouth. A woman says, “That’s enough. That’s the last straw—if you leave, don’t come back. There are others.”

But I like it best when Bausch implicates us in the violence, as when the excellent Nazareth Pandero tells a story while watching the voluptuous dancer Melanie Maurin perform. Pandero recounts, “When I was seven, I went to the ballet. I wanted to see them up close. The calves. The calves. I wanted to have them. Oh, Melanie, Melanie.”

“Look,” says Pina Bausch.

What are we looking at when we look at the ballet? Do we see the meaning and the movement? The vicarious thrill of kinesthetic smarts? Or does it stop at the flesh and the fabric? For the Children—with its romantic soundscape of blues and bandoneon, its endless parade of fabulous gowns for the women—catches us with its beauty. When Pandero comments on this seduction overtly in the exchange above, the work assumes the bite that Bausch’s reputation has been made on and reminds us of how dance itself, like the machinations of love and war so robustly documented throughout Bausch’s oeuvre, makes meat of the body.

But Bausch uses sly wit of this order sparingly in For the Children, which mainly tells its story through movement. There is a dance of fluttering hands and fingers for the petite Ditta Miranda Jasjfi. There is the hip-hop-esque dance in socks for Rainer Behr, in which he falls, balances on one hand, and spins himself around with his body low and parallel to the floor, only to slide back up to stand. There are walks and runs, shrugs and starts, all rendered with the fierce commitment and poetic grace that come from sustained engagement with the choreographer, the material, and the company.

Is that enough, then? Do age and the institution inevitably tame all young rebels? Can we shift gears with the shifting concerns of our favorite artists? How does dance dig deep? And why aren’t there more editors in choreography, anyway? The best moment came late in the night in Andrej Berezin’s remarkable solo of hand gestures. In a dark suit, haloed by a tight spotlight that obliterated the rest of the theatre, Berezin poured moves like silver, touching his hands to his head, then to his torso, where he parsed his fingers as if measuring growth and walked them down toward either leg. Or he would push his elbows out, then in, touching his temples and lifting his head, the cycle ending with his hands coming together in reflection. Minute, yet precise, performed with stoicism and missionary focus, the moment commanded no shiver of recognition but rather an intense desire to speak his language. It was worth waiting for.

 

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