REVIEW: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at BAM

REVIEW: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at BAM

Pina Bausch, one of the most influential and original choreographers of the 20th century, once famously said: “I’m not interested in how people move but what moves them.”  Her two most iconic works, now in performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) through September 24th, prove her words true.

“The Rite of Spring” (1975) and “Café Müller” (1978) were performed together in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s 1984 BAM debut.  That “historic bill” is now back at the Howard Gilman Opera House as a sold-out centerpiece of BAM’s Next Wave Festival

Stepping into the auditorium a buzz pervades the air.  To see this company perform this program in this venue feels like a momentous occasion, and 33 years later, the pieces themselves feel as fresh, profound, and exhilarating as if they had just premiered.  The enduring power of Bausch’s extraordinary repertoire is embodied in the raw, emotional truth of her movement, performed by a remarkable company comprising 36 dancers, notably of varied age. 

Born in Solingen, Germany in 1940, after training with greats like Kurt Joos, Anthony Tudor, and Jose Limon, Pina Bausch returned to Essen, Germany and pioneered a new style of dance in the 1970s dubbed Tanztheater (or “dance theatre”), a collaborative process that incorporates elements of movement, sound, setting, and drama to produce haunting, dream-like dances imbued with feeling and defying easy categorization. 

Café Müller”, which opens the performance, is set in an abandoned restaurant, packed with scattered café tables and chairs.  An ensemble of six stumble and jolt through the set—intermittently accompanied by arias by Henry Purcell or else in silence—brushing the furniture aside as they cut across the space, the wreckage mirroring their emotional strife.  Patterns emerge as we witness the devastation of love, loss, and loneliness.  This jagged movement is so real and honest it feels almost improvisational despite its careful orchestration, and the experience of watching and hearing it is both uneasy and arresting.  “Café Müller” is the essence of Tanztheater. 

For “The Rite of Spring”, a more traditional modern dance piece set to Igor Stravinsky’s monumental composition, the stage is cleared and covered in a thick layer of rich, brown dirt, providing a literal earthen grounding for the violent, ferocious, and primal ritual that ensues.  This piece, performed by the entire company, is perhaps the most compelling and moving dance I have ever seen.  The precision of the ensemble, coupled with the emotional intensity coursing through their bodies, is at once frightening and spectacular.  As they work up a sweat, their breathing echoes through the space, and the dirt begins to stick to their sinewy forms.  The climax, a full-bodied, writhing solo performed by Tsai-Chin Yu teems with abandon that feels dangerous and wholly expressive.

For all the fanfare and high-brow interest, Bausch’s work is accessible, so long as one remains open to the experience.  The abstraction of it is familiar because it is emotionally resonant.  As one young member of the company recently told the New York Times, “I felt, this is theater, and these are humans. They were people onstage being themselves — moving, making jokes, screaming. And I understood what they were doing.” 

Bausch has to be felt as much as seen, which is what makes its live performance so captivating and necessary.  At curtain call, there is not a smile across the corps; they are emotionally—if not physically—exhausted, the gravity of their work emblazoned on their faces.  Upon completion there is a sense of relief, of release, a knowing intensity that is precious in the theatre, or in any artistic endeavor. 

Labanotation aside, the ephemeral and visual nature of dance demands a practice akin to oral tradition.  Dance must be danced, and shared, or else it is lost.  Bausch died at age 68 a mere five days after receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2009.  No plans were made for what would become of her company, for which she was the sole choreographer and remained a principal dancer until her death. 

Fortunately, the members of Bausch’s company have soldiered on since her untimely passing, and with sold out performances the world over, the troupe is poised to face the future in the bold mold of its creator, planning new works, welcoming new members who never danced with Pina Bausch herself, and continuing the unique tradition of Tanztheater.

Café Müller/The Rite of Spring
Howard Gilman Opera House/Peter Jay Sharp Building
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Avenue
Brooklyn, NY11217

“Café Müller” (1978)
A piece by Pina Bausch
Music by Henry Purcell
Directed and choreographed by Pina Bausch
Set and costume design by Rolf Borzik
Collaboration with Marion Cito and Hans Pop

“The Rite of Spring” (1975)
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Directed and choreographed by Pina Bausch
Set and costume design by Rolf Borzik
Collaboration with Hans Pop

Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (one intermission)
First Performance: Thursday, September 14, 2017
Final Performance: Sunday, September 24, 2017
Tickets: Sold Out

REVIEW: Justin Sayre (thankfully) back at Joe’s Pub

REVIEW: Justin Sayre (thankfully) back at Joe’s Pub

tl;dr for September 18th