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Flash Review Journal, 2-19: Same time next season
Paris & Pina Fete 30-year love affair

By Marisa C. Hayes
Copyright 2009 Marisa C. Hayes

(Second in the Dance Insider's four-part series, Winter of Wuppertal, celebrating the work of Pina Bausch as covered by Dance Insider critics all over the world.)

PARIS -- Pina Bausch's three-decade relationship with the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt -- where the Tanztheater Wuppertal makes an annual appearance and benefits from the theater's regular financial contributions to Bausch's new work -- was underscored in January during the company's exceptional month-long residency. Two programs were offered during this lengthy stay, a reprise of "Wiesenland" (2000) and Bausch's latest creation, "Sweet Mambo" (2008). Contrary to the common tendency of waxing nostalgic for the "Pina of the past" (for example, last year London programmed 1975's "Le Sacre du Printemps" and "Cafe Muller," first seen in 1978), the Theatre de la Ville's steady support for the Tanztheater Wuppertal, and its back-to-back programming of two recent works in the repertoire gave an insightful and fresh view of the company.

Seen January 8, "Wiesenland" (Meadow Land), inspired by a sejour in Budapest, is a continuation of Bausch's loosely-woven travelogue work that began with "Palermo Palermo" (1989) and recently resulted in "Bamboo Blues" (2007). Marked by a behemoth green hill that dominates and initially hovers above the stage, covered in live moss and ferns, Peter Pabst's decor doesn't have much of a direct link to the dancers compared to Bausch's organic sets of the past. Instead, this large-scale greenery serves as an omnipresent structure that remains in the background throughout the opening of the performance. Its presence, however, is not to be relegated to mere decoration. This landscape sets a tone of naturalistic harmony that stands in direct contrast to the varied scenarios that unfold beneath it.

Despite its large-scale set, "Wiesenland" leaves plenty of room for Bausch's token symbols, such as the use of chairs. One segment features a male/female couple constructing a tower of stacked, wooden chairs as their movements become progressively fragile in order to maintain the balance of their collective building. They stealthily slide in and out of their various levels of construction, and suddenly seem to foresee the inevitable collapse of their union. Remarkably, the tower stays put. As commonly featured in the Bausch repertoire, long gowns, fur coats and the constant kicking-off and slipping-on again of stiletto heels are all mainstay fixtures in "Wiesenland." They mesh perfectly with the collage of abstract images of Hungarian society -- various social groups are hinted at, obsessing over wealth and coming off as kitsch instead -- and are used to good effect as a tool for the humorous gags that run throughout: a seemingly bourgeois women's coat hides a hefty amount of cutlery and kitchenware as it loudly clatters to the floor, slipping from various hiding places inside the dancer's fur-lined covering. These flying forks and plates dance in the air while falling from their host, a mysterious woman darting across the stage in circles, panting and tapping out an unintentional rhythm in heels. In scenes like these, the Wuppertal dancers prove to be experts at comedic delivery and timing, even when the subject itself isn't particularly humorous.

During the second half of the program, Pabst's green meadow undergoes a formidable rotation, descending closer to the stage and becoming more accessible to the dancers. On or near the meadow, live chickens, shy, adolescent sexual encounters and romps through the greenery capture something of a peasant-like simplicity. Other patchwork moments collide head-on with the sculpture's naturalism: shallow and meaningless romantic moments, episodes of Mafia-inspired violence and alcohol-driven rants. In addition to these theatrical vignettes followed by random outbreaks of pure virtuosic dance -- the men particularly shine with their sensual, balletic lines -- the performers interact with the audience by asking questions using a mixture of spoken dialogue and gestures. One female dancer goes from row to row asking: "Does somebody love you?" Without waiting for an answer, she feigns sympathy with the overenthusiastic gusto of a soap opera star, "No? That's soooo sad because somebody loves me!" Another performer gestures to her ring finger and points at a couple, miming the questions, "Are you married?" and "Do you have children?" Both dancers glean information from the crowd. The first uses it to gloat about her own romantic fortune at the expense of others, while the latter remains quiet as a cat, stirring up insecurities without doing more than lifting a finger or arching her eyebrows in mock surprise. These small unsettling tremblers form the basis of Pina Bausch's work, extending their cracks beneath the surface and into the audience. Thanks to its comedic content, dancegoers are too busy laughing at first to realize that "Wiesenland" steadily succeeds at getting under the skin. While images of gypsies, traditional peasant culture, and elements of Hungarian life are recognizable -- chiefly, the extreme push towards materialism in the post-communist era -- they remain mere strokes on a larger canvas that merges abstract impressions, sensations and a stream of consciousness that remains most powerful in its open-endedness.

The same sense of unspoilt mystery is found in Bausch's newest creation "Sweet Mambo," seen January 20. With even fewer clues to follow than "Wiesenland" -- "Sweet Mambo" isn't a piece inspired by a recognizable location -- Its minimalist set design (Peter Pabst again) leaves a refreshingly open stage to be filled with long portions of full-out dance and loosely-defined ideas. During the opening moments of the performance, dancer Regina Advento plays a Tibetan singing bowl. Its sound originates alone on stage, but creates waves that reverberate throughout the theater. She then proceeds to introduce herself, lecturing the audience on the proper pronunciation of her full name. Before exiting, she adds "Don't forget!" Advento is only the first in a succession of dancers the audience meets through personalized introductions. Julie Shanahan appears and announces that her ears are inherited from her grandfather, while her hands come from her mother. Shortly thereafter, she breaks into a magical solo that makes clear use of the aforementioned features: long, articulate hands that extend sky-bound. Unfortunately, despite Advento's early warning, audiences may very well forget the names of these top-tier dancers due to their absence in the program. The musical credits are also visibly missing from a list that otherwise includes choreographic, costume and design credits. This seems to be current Tanztheater Wuppertal policy. Theatre de la Ville typically credits the dancers in its programs and does list the Wuppertal performers on its website. Bausch's dancers and musical selections deserve better recognition as their onstage presentations are beautifully crafted in a piece that deals with solitude, personal identity and false connections.

Unlike in "Wiesenland," there isn't much humor to be found in "Sweet Mambo," but it does produce a hearty dose of unspecified discomfort. As with the films of David Lynch, there's something frightening in not knowing precisely what to be afraid of. Viewers feel a sense of unease and violence, but can't necessarily pinpoint what's happening or who the perpetrator is, if there even is one. During one of "Sweet Mambo"'s most powerful sequences, a large video projection creates lightning in a darkened sky while a female dancer (Julie Anne Stanzak) runs to the side of the stage only to be escorted back to her starting point by two men. She repeats her attempt to cross the stage diagonally dozens of times, shouting "Let me go!" The men quietly block her exit and carry her back each time. The woman's hysteria grows, as her arms and legs flail between the powerful grasp of two men whose calm, emotionless faces give no indication of menace except to block her passage. A similar trio involves another female dancer dressed in a pink silk gown and flanked by two men who seize her long hair like the reigns of a horse and proceed to run in large circles that cover the entire stage. This time, it's the female who seems to be leading, challenging the men to keep pace with her. Instead of provoking a straightforward gender analysis, "Sweet Mambo" inspires a mood that encourages audiences to view these moments as a metaphorical exploration of one's personal demons. Contextual interpretation is possible here, but limiting.

The entire company rarely appears onstage together in "Sweet Mambo," and with the exception of the aforementioned trios, duos and small groups are also a rarity. Instead, solo after solo, always remarkably danced, creates a rising tide of loneliness and lost opportunities. Indeed, one dancer says to the audience, "I feel completely empty." In this respect, Advento's solo is particularly memorable. Accompanied by a sultry female vocalist, she makes intensive use of the space inside a transparent cloth bubble that extends sideways from the wings like a giant curtain. Later the cloth loses its form and becomes flat again, fading into the background. While "Sweet Mambo" doesn't inspire wild acclaim, it's not without merit, and remains a solid new piece that can run circles around much of what contemporary dance theater has to offer.

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