Pina Bausch

After years and years of resisting Pina Bausch, I’m getting quite cozy with her work – just when the work is getting less fierce than it used to be. Time passes and everyone mellows out, I guess. In the realm of art, though, this is not necessarily a good thing. For its most recent engagement at BAM, Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, which visits us every three years or so, presented Danzón, created in 1995. The piece is Bausch-lite, the director-choreographer’s characteristic evocations of obsessive rage and inscrutable anomie transmuted into vignettes permeated by the sunny silliness endemic to romantic comedy.

Old Bausch set the sexes, dulled by depression, against each other in weird permutations of mental antagonism and outright physical cruelty. New Bausch is almost (dare I say it?) upbeat and lets the guys and gals have fun together, romping naked in the primeval forests, lush jungles, and arctic tundras that film so easily provides. Old Bausch coupled the savage with the disgusting and went relentlessly on and on until you thought you’d go mad. New Bausch keeps messes to a minimum and is done in less than two hours. A sense of life’s absurdity – illustrated by grotesquely peculiar actions, disjunctively linked – is still prominent here, but very much tamed.

Danzón even indulges in one of those humanist, kitschy arc-of-life metaphors one would have assumed Bausch despised: beginning with birth and ending with death (granted, through quirky references). But the dance is primarily interested in the zany deliciousness of existing in one’s prime. This subject keeps springing up – in the effervescent, rhythmically intricate danzón movement and music, and in performances exuding a sensuality that’s the epitome of good health. Much as old Bausch seemed to me pretentiously gloomy and nasty, I must admit that felt like a more authentic expression of its maker than the fluffier Danzón. It was certainly more piercing and more memorable.

The best thing about Danzón, and the reason I’ve finally succumbed – to a degree – to Bausch’s work overall, is the performers. With each installment in the Bausch canon, their distinctive personalities are revealed further, as with characters in an ongoing serial who become part of one’s personal mythology. The senior stars are Mechthild Grossmann of the gravelly voice and divine exasperation; the delicately built, profoundly melancholy Dominique Mercy; and the stolid Jan Minarik, who executes the most ridiculous chores as if he found them utterly reasonable. Among the juniors, the gorgeous, daring Raphaëlle Delaunay is the one to watch.

And then there’s Bausch herself. Though she rarely appears in her own concoctions, toward the end of Danzón she performs an extended solo. Dwarfed by gigantic projections of tropical fish hypnotically swimming to nowhere, she moves in half-light, rooted in place, letting her upper body stretch and ripple like seaweed in its watery garden, until she slowly strolls off, one arm waving as if in farewell. This self-effacing dance has a gentle, wistful beauty that suggests Bausch might have made quite a respectable career as a lyrical dancer, were it not that she, like Hamlet, had bad dreams.

Pina Bausch