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Retroflash Review, 5-28: Pina does Pina
...but "Bamboo Blues" just scratches the surface

By Melinda Lee
Copyright 2009 Melinda Lee

NEW YORK -- Everyone needs rituals, and for New York dance lovers at Christmastime, Pina Bausch at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has become something like a biennial "Nutcracker" for moderns, anticipated with equal parts delight and expectation. In 2006 Bausch arrived across the Atlantic puddle with the Turkish-themed "Nefes" (2003), and in 2004 with "For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (2002), based on a Native American tale about how a brave squirrel was granted wings and evolved into a bat, to cite just two recent examples of her 20-year presence at BAM. Bausch is the last doyenne of a particular era of dance and Western modern art overall that loves to do this kind of "native"- or "world"-inspired art, and we love her for it. Yet there are signs that even Bausch might have lost focus of the emotional gravitas of the inspirations and insights that have made her known.

Last year's "Bamboo Blues" (seen December 16, 2008), described in the program as an "ode to India," was filled with impeccable choreography rich with the gestural subtlety, playfulness, and luscious, captivating presence that make Bausch a master at expressing the human condition. But India? Rather than Orientalist, "Bamboo Blues" seemed more like an assemblage of impressions and archetypes that have not caught up with the sheer vastness of that nation and its rapid economic growth alongside its ancient traditions, making the dance work seem reductive and strained for substance. Bausch seemed to know it, too, as she touched upon volatile imageries in the first act perfectly suited to modern dance expression, but shifted later into repeated movement phrasing set against large-scale video projections (upon billowy, silken backdrops, both set and video having been created by Peter Pabst) in the second act that were awkwardly mundane, then oddly ethnographic, out of any context.

Conscious of the range of stereotypes and acts of 'othering' that she is capable of, Bausch begins "Blues" with a fascinating and absurdist parade of cliches. As in amateur circus acts, a bevy of all-smiling women hold lighters beneath a man's feet, instead of flames. Across the stage, two women lying on a tabletop perform the visual trickery of morphing into one, one person's pair of legs back-bending over the other's head. The cast then pair themselves two-by-two, sashaying across the stage, taking meticulous pains at smiling and wrapping themselves in cloths. Paired later into heterosexual matings, man and woman coyly pull at each other with ribbon and cloth and self-consciously watch each other in their bizarre flirtations. These are images of India that reflect both stereotype and truth -- one need only watch one Bollywood love epic to know the tropes.

For the opening of "Bamboo Blues," then, it seems that Bausch is letting us in on a well-done joke, and in typical probing fashion, to push us to laugh and squirm as the joke starts to roast. Na Young Kim approaches audience members in the front row to drape them with bindis, and kuchipudi-trained Shantala Shivalingappa invites the entire front section to smell a long, scented ribbon: "It's cardamom!" she too-sweetly exclaims. The opening is a celebration turned cartoon, and we can't help but feel both joyous and conflicted at such representations of India and implications of ourselves, both ridiculed and ridiculing.

Out of this witty and sophisticated satire, the performers erupt into dynamic choreography so characteristically Bauschian it makes all theatrics seem self-inscribing ('The best thing about satirizing yourself is that you get to be even more you,' I scribble in my notes). The women spring onto the men thrusting weight and will and bearing exquisite coiffures, stereotypes themselves of Tanztheater Wuppertal's erotic appeal. A solo by Clementine Deluy is formal yet wild, desirous and tormented, and within the context of an idea of India makes a case for classic modern dance as resoundingly relevant to today's affairs. In vermilion, in gold, and in iridescent royal blue, one woman after another races around the stage, chased or chasing, it's not clear which. Then a piggy-backed Shivalingappa shrieks chillingly, "Let me go!" as she is being carried and run off the stage, and my seat is cold as I shudder with recognition of images of potential destination that I'd rather forget.

On the whole, the work belongs to the dancers, however, not to stories from India about kidnappings or funeral pyre burnings -- images perhaps equally typecast in this reviewer's imagination, but nonetheless, provoked. The cascade of solos that follows the charged vignette above grows dull and emotionally dry, distant from even an abstracted context or environment. In 'Blues' there is no wall of carnations or massive crowd providing the context of witness, as in previous iconic works by Bausch and her collaborators. The performances are not unmoving, but cumulatively they appear as more of a testament to the love of a choreographer for her performers.

In this surreal world populated by such an assortment of rapturous yet personable performers, why not indulge in them? Immaculate in physical precision and fluidity, each person on stage is an excellent dancer. Relative newcomer to the company Damiano Ottavio Bigi is especially unforgettable, almost too quick for the imagination with an enthralling mixture of modern and break dance. Cristiana Morganti is captivating, at once both sincere and beguiling, with a monologue that exhibits the best of the company's host of skills as dancers but also as narrators, comedians, and actors (and that hints again at a woman's conflict): "I had a dream. In the dream I was cooking. I had a dream. In the dream I was flying." To the undeniable enjoyment of many, when man and woman come together and pull apart something primal is piqued: who wouldn't want to be beneath her skirt? Open-mouthed, pressed against his shirt? Having him thrown passionately upon your bosom? Oh, to have such a bosom!

Post-intermission, however, the piece became repetitive, episodic, eccentric, ethnocentric. A man is carried onstage cross-legged, holding blue tubing to represent the all-knowing elephant trunk of Ganesha; there is bathing in buckets; there are psychedelic images of gods and goddesses blown up to projections of immense proportions. These images are pop cultural everydays in Indian homes and stores, and here, just kind of ridiculous. By the time a theatrical vignette jabbing at the American/European customer service industry out-sourced to India arises with an awkward monologue ("Thank you for calling Pizza Pronto"), I am frustrated and forcing myself to smile. By the time the video projection features a costumed Indian dancer of unattributed tradition performing an ecstatic ritual in complete contrast to the formalism of what has been on stage, I find myself faced with too many questions I haven't been asked -- about the civilized and uncivilized, the idea of civilization, the classicism of staged dance, and the bittersweetness of cultural crossings that broaden horizons yet do so by feeding into a classicist framework inside the context of a culture whose biggest contemporary social issue is class. I did not come looking for a dance work that serves as social commentary. But with the somewhat random use of video imagery and sporadic attempts at contemporary relevance, it seemed that "Bamboo Blues" was also searching for a way to speak to something larger, and the dancing, the pure dancing, started to fade in comparison.

Pina does Pina, and no one else can. But many other outlets perform India: From the "Incredible India" ad campaigns of the country's tourism board, to commercial marketing that pillages romantic images of "idyllic India," to New Age-ish trance yoga for executives, the average viewer already has a stock image of the nation, moreover as a falsely singular nation (attend a Deshi party anywhere and you may have a more authentic and diverse personal experience, madly kinetic guaranteed). "Bamboo Blues" demonstrates Pina Bausch as her best self, but perhaps a bit out of touch with some audiences and with what she's really trying to say about a country, culture, and people she loves so much.


For more on Pina Bausch's "Bamboo Blues" on the Dance Insider, see also Laurie Uprichard's Flash Review of the work's Paris premiere, and Robin Hoffman's Dance Insider Illustration.

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