Sex and the Silly

Skirting disaster: Bausch's Masurca Fogo.

What on earth is the message of Masurca Fogo (Fiery Mazurka), the latest Pina Bausch work performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music? That we lead our lives in a bleak wintry landscape but can be transported to a lush climate by the magic of sex? Made for the 1998 Lisbon World Expo, the piece is a typically Bauschian collage of dance, pedestrian action, spoken text, an eclectic assemblage of music, and weird props. But this opus pointedly opens with a woman simulating a Guinness Book orgasm induced by the six-man ensemble partnering her and concludes with a chorus line of touch-dancing couples who lie down in darkness as lavish flowers bloom thanks to time-lapse photography. For some years now, Bausch has been softening from her original stance of documenting life as a theater of cruelty, absurdity, and alienation. Masurca Fogo, feeble in the departments of edge and irony, focusing on the athleticism and pulchritude of its dancers (rather than, as in Bausch’s touchstone works, on their awkward singularity), marks a big lurch forward into the banal.

The basic setting is a stark white room (clinic? prison?); it’s backed by a craggy hill resembling a deposit of molten lava, across and down which the dancers must scramble. This austere, threatening space is periodically engulfed by grainy color film that dwarfs the live human figures and submerges them in images of nature – lush rain forest, charging beasts, turbulent sea. The action, as is customary with Bausch, occurs as a series of vignettes that are loosely connected at best. At regular intervals, dancers deliver soliloquies ostensibly revealing their personal history. Similarly, pure-dance solos stud the piece, and one wonders if these, too, might not have originated with the performers, Bausch having no recognizable choreographic style, only a signature theatrical style. Matters go on for nearly three hours, during which the material and the intent behind it appear increasingly slack and the homage to the erotic sillier and sillier.

Compared with American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, where the norm is state-of-the-art dancers in opulent, sophisticated productions of nineteenth-century classics, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, recently at the City Center in a program of excerpts from the golden oldies, was offering only recital-level fare – overambitious, well-intentioned, touchingly makeshift and tacky. Despite its many inadequacies, though, it was a welcome reminder of dance qualities that have elsewhere been rejected as old-fashioned and recklessly abandoned in favor of snazzier streamlined effects. The Cuban company is the work of Alicia Alonso, an international assoluta of the forties and fifties. Known to yesteryear’s New York audience for her technically brilliant, powerfully dramatic performances with ABT, Alonso always kept one foot, as it were, in her native Havana. To several generations of Cuban protégés, Alonso has transmitted a wisdom that emphasizes dancing on a grand scale coupled with modesty of deportment; uncompromising precision softened by grace; quick action in the feet; confidently centered turns; heroic aplomb in balances; a sculptural sense of the body in space; and theatrical panache. Few of the troupe’s current performers are up to their assignments, being too young, too old, physically ill-favored, or simply insufficiently gifted – but every last one of them reflects the company’s admirable governing ideas.

Among the most distinguished dancers were Lorna Feijóo, who brings off bravura feats with dulcet calm, and Galina Álvarez, queen of the plangent adagio. My favorite was Viengsay Valdéz, perfectly cast as Swanilda in the Coppélia excerpt. She’s a born soubrette, with the build and face of a cherub and unaffected personal charm. Though she’s a virtuosa of balance and spinning, her dancing registers first and foremost as a natural expression of joy.

Pina Bausch
Masurca Fogo; at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba
At the City Center.

Sex and the Silly