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Flash Review, 6-6: Forty+ = Less is More
Old Masters Bring New Life to Bausch's Wuppertal

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The challenge for performer-interpreters of Pina Bausch is that much of the drama emanates from the unsaid -- and even the undanced. To understand the power of understatement (yes, there's plenty of overstatement too), to know how to convey archetypal neuroses while trying to suppress them, to be able to render experience visible with the invisible, you need to have lived. Or at least be surrounded by 'elders' who can teach this wisdom. In addition to a sense that she's hit a choreographic dry spell, the problem with the last three works of Pina Bausch has been that a choreographer who depends a lot on interpretation -- actor/dancers giving weighted meaning to often trite verbal or physical meanderings with their ability at subtle projection, or even just the gravity of their presence -- has had to rely on a company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, which seems to have de-aged by at least a generation. So moments which depend on wry inflection for their dramatic impact have instead often been delivered with neutral dryness. What a joy, then, that for the reprisal of her 1980 "Bandonéon" which opened Wuppertal's annual Paris season last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, Bausch has stocked the pool with several veterans who, in the quality of their performances and in elevating the performances of the youngsters, remind us of the ionized impact of the most influential and relevant choreographer of the past three decades.

Just when I was sure I'd become jaded, if not fossilized (I heard that!), I learned a new thing about theater-going last night: Sometimes it's a negative reaction by other spectators that highlights the positive qualities of a performance. As background, I should explain that modern dance's cache here on the Continent is not the same as it is in the States -- it's actually cool. As the biggest theater showing modern dance (it also programs theater and music) in France, and perhaps in all Europe, the Theatre de la Ville is also a stop on the chic route, be it for cool Parisians or for pit-stopping tourists. As a result, we often have the phenomenon of significant portions of the audience leaving when something happens on stage that, if they knew anything beforehand about the choreographer, they could have anticipated. For some reason, last night this mild exodus started up in Act Two of the show (which, I should mention, was set to mostly vintage tango recordings -- not credited, but which sounded like Carlos Gardel, Astor Piazzolla, and others). But the most telling moment -- the one in which fleeing philistines actually helped me appreciate a memorable moment in dance -- came when Nazareth Panadero, one of the veterans, stood center-stage, alone. What was she doing that so offended these people? Nothing. Or rather, she was not speaking, she was not propelling herself across the stage, she was rooted to one spot. But... but... but she was trembling. Or not even trembling; demi-trembling. Trying to suppress trembling. The source of her suppressed shivers? A crumpled piece of paper in her hand... which turned out to be words from a popular song commencing, "Oh marvelous month of May." (Only in French, the word 'marvelous' provides more sounds to roll off and savor with the tongue: merveilleux.') And yet it wasn't just the piece of paper which made her tremble in containment, but the associations carried with it. I could be clever and guess at what these associations might have been for Panadero, but it's not important. What matters more is that by a sort of quietness of the corps, Panadero was giving us resonation, the greatest gift any performer can give her audience. And seeing a few of the dilettantes choose this particular moment to part made me realize what a valuable treasure we had here.

This eloquence was repeated, interpreting one passage or another, by Panadero's fellow veterans, Andrey Berezin, Lutz Forster, Helena Pikon, Jorge Puerta Armenta and, of course, the only man who can don a tutu and use it to tragic effect, Dominique Mercy. Their sophistication, drollness, timing, and poignancy brought new reflection to their younger partners, Silvia Farias, Ditta Miranda Jasjfi, Melanie Maurin, Pascal Merighi, Cristiana Morganti, Jean-Laurent Sasportes, Azusa Seyama, Julie Anne Stanzak, Kenji Takagi, Anna Wehsarg, sizzling show opener Fernando Suels Mendoza, and, particularly in very personal duets with her father, Thusnelda Mercy. It was in the duets especially that all the interpreters displayed their ability to capture Bausch's intentions and transport them to the audience: languorous social dance sections in which couples bared and then connected by similar body parts (shoulders, thighs); passages where the men suspended the rigid women by hoisting them by their groins (apparently, as it happened under their long skirts); others in which the women lifted their blouses behind to reveal their backs, insistently asking their partners to scratch them; and in delivering the choreography which came closest to tango -- except that they had to do this particular slow dance while turning on their knees.

Also getting props for eloquence is the crew, which essentially performed, towards the end of the first act, by clearing the set of everything from small purses arrayed near the lip of the stage to large framed vintage pictures attached to the walls, even as the dancers continued to drift in and out. Notwithstanding their business-like attitude (the typical one of stagehands on stage trying to pretend that no one's watching them), this sequence appeared to be exactly and exquisitely choreographed. Early on, someone carefully set a plate of lemons downstage center while the soon-to-be removed larger props were still on stage. After the set was completely stripped, only the lemons remained, to be savourously sucked by Pikon in the act's penultimate moment.

PS: Animal-lover that I am, I can't help but take exception to Bausch's tasteless use of a live mouse. It opened the second act with the petite Jasjfi when she opened her palm to reveal the creature, then passed along the front row of the audience offering to let them pet the animal. It became just embarassing when Jasjfi returned later with the now-caged mouse, serenading him with the famous aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," oblivious to the fact that the mouse, perhaps taking a hint from some of the audience members, was more interested in digging his way out.

Tanztheater Wuppertal performs Pina Bausch's 1980 classic "Bandonéon" through June 11 at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, followed by her new "Vollmond," June 16 - 24.

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