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Flash Review 1, 3-29: Rinse, Lather, Repeat
Bausch's New, Older Version of "Kontakthof"

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2002, 2011 Rosa Mei

ANTWERP -- "In the beginning I had dancers who were busy with the way they looked and were afraid of losing something onstage," Pina Bausch told the New York Times in 1985. "Then I found dancers who had less to lose and they were not afraid to go somewhere further." The dancers in "Kontakthof," seen last Friday at De Singel, go very, very far. They are damen and herren of Wuppertal, the company's home, all untrained performers between the ages of 65 and 75. This clever reconstruction of "Kontakthof," a pivotal Bausch piece from 1978 based on courting rituals and male/female dynamics (the party dressed she to the dark suited he), retains its hormonal core. From micro-gestures to group groping sessions, the contrast between sexual frenzy and corseted propriety couldn't be clearer. This time however, the infinitely expressive cast is a bit older, grayer, and quite possibly wiser.

The 25 performers in this "Kontakhof" form a societal cross section of personalities. The nobleman, the geek, the bore, the buxom slattern, the school marm, the child (which is present regardless of age). Despite their unique personalities, these individuals adhere to a social order dictated by taffeta and patent leather shoes. The 12 men wear dark suits while the 13 women preen in pastel party dresses or don formal black numbers -- read funeral attire -- for more somber sections. "Kontakthof," which translates as "contact yard" or "courtyard of contact," begins with the characters walking forward one by one and presenting themselves as goods in some kind of bizarre human bazaar. Woman #1 stands with her back to the audience, turns front, smoothes her hair, smiles, turns profile, extends her hands forward, palms up, palms down, arms akimbo, and exits. Other characters come forward and repeat the same gestures, perhaps substituting a sneer for a smile. Rinse, lather, repeat and voila, a Spiegel catalog of human curios all in assorted shapes and sizes.

They are the human lab rats in a controlled environment (a sterile auditorium), subjects of an experiment otherwise known as Pina's World. We see the personal touchstones of Bausch's imagination, her fascination with the tone of a room, the daily ache of the soul. Her characters go through the motions of life in a series of small gestures -- a finger flick, a snarl, a quick shuffle to the right. A man pulls a toy mouse out of his pocket and chases a woman around the room with it. Jack chases Jill or Gunter chases Anke. The men, advancing like chess pieces in chairs, grope and molest the air as they anxiously approach the women on the other side of the room. A woman in green paces around eating a Granny Smith apple after shouting orgasmic "Yes!! Yes!!!"s into the mike. Meanwhile, another woman begs someone in the front row for a coin so she can ride the hobby horse in the corner.

One visual extravaganza follows another. The restless souls seem to be searching aimlessly for happiness but unaware of what steps to take to find it. They nonetheless approach their tasks with dogged intent, sometimes alone but mostly as a herd. They prance about in time to scratchy recordings of love songs, lusty tangos and bright carnival music. "Mein schones," "Blonde Clara," "Spring and Sunshine" and "Boogie Woogie." A pink laced frau calls out for her Liebling or dear one, perhaps a man, perhaps a pet. "Liebling!!! Liebling!!!" First playfully, then ruefully, then shouting at the top of her lungs. When the others tire of her histrionic whining, they exit the room, some mocking her self-pity, some just plain bored. The hobby horse rider comes back to beg another person for a coin. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Along with this catalogue of characters and actions, we see immaculate attention to costume and lighting. The piece takes place over a series of days and nights, dusks and dawns marking the passage of time, highlighting the regularity of routine. Changes occur in cycles -- when to wear stilettos, when to walk barefoot and when to walk barefoot as if you're still wearing stilettos. This shoe fetish has creeped, no pun intended, into the work of many of Bausch's acolytes. Just look at De Keersmaeker's "Achterland," "Just Before," and "Rosa" for proof. You could literally spend whole evenings tracking the use of footwear and apparel.

Bausch's immaculate attention to detail is actually what distinguishes her from her legions of followers, both the good ones and the Pina wannabes guilty of gratingly self-indulgent performance art. Val Bourne, curator of London's Dance Umbrella festival, says Bausch spawned lots of imitators in the mid 1980s "who thought all they had to do was walk on stage and improvise in a wild way" but "no one else has her rigor and powers of editing" (Guardian, 23 jan 1999). She carves each section with an exact-o knife. A monotonous procession cuts to wild scampering, and a lone soul remains. The result is carefully controlled chaos, deconstructed design with strings of leitmotifs running seamlessly through the work.

What makes this current version of "Kontakthof" so unique, however, is its stunning cast, all untrained performers from a small, gritty industrial town in northwest Germany. On the surface we see the signs of age: the wrinkles, the stoopy shoulders, the sagging breasts, white hair and male patterned baldness. But we also see rich lives, residue from 65+ years of living. For some reason, the mating rituals and sexual frenzy seem even more poignant when performed by folks past their prime breeding years. The desire never dies. The child within never quite grows up. This elderly group of Wuppertalers may be one of the most interesting casts ever to grace Bausch's work and definitely deserves to be seen Stateside.

Arlene Croce once dismissed Bausch's choreography as the "pornography of pain," but perhaps a viewing of "Kontakthof" would change her mind. We see wizened, extraordinary yet ordinary people searching for La Dolce Vita. Does it really exist? Perhaps if you sashay in just the right way in time to the music, it doesn't even matter.

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