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Tanztheatre Wuppertal's Shantala Shivalingappa and Fernando Suels Mendoza in Pina Bausch's "Bamboo Blues." Photo © Jong-Duk Woo.

Copyright 2012 Josephine Leask

(For more on Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch's "World Cities" tour de force, see our photo gallery of the season.)

NEW YORK -- One great harvest of the Olympics being held in London this year is the cultural Olympiad, which has brought us Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch, under the leadership of Dominique Mercy and Robert Sturm. In a tribute to Bausch under the rubric "World Cities," ten works which were inspired by the choreographer's reactions to ten different cities around the world and made between the years of 1986 and 2007 played alternately at the Barbican Theatre and Sadler's Wells, both of whom collaborated in this Bauschian tour de force.

My tour around the world with the company began June 21 at the Barbican with the 2007 "Bamboo Blues," inspired by Kolkata (Calcutta). Although I was unable to see Bausch's impressions of being in Rome, Santiago de Chile, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Saitama in Japan, I managed to catch up with the company and complete the second half of this World City series. After India, I was able to travel to Istanbul ("Nefes," from 2003), Sao Paulo ("Agua," 2001), Palermo ("Palermo, Palermo," 1989), and Budapest ("Wiesenland," 2000).

There is definitely a picture postcard feel to all the works, with the exception of "Palermo, Palermo," which is harder, grittier and less glamorous. Choreography, text, visuals and music pick up on the energy of each place as experienced by Bausch and company members. Beauty and desire are the overriding features that seep from the works. There is more lyrical choreography and harmonious duets than in the earlier repertoire; the darker psychological terrain of the work from the '70s and '80s with grotesque, alienating imagery is replaced by a much lighter, sunnier one. The unresolvable tensions between the sexes are also largely absent, replaced by celebratory or flirtatious encounters between men and women who mostly appear to love each other, even if it is only momentarily. I am rarely pushed out of my comfort zone by any disturbing content here, and I wonder if this is about Bausch's reaction to cultures that she didn't really understand or if it reflects a mellowing of the choreographer in the last decade of her life.

Watching "Bamboo Blues" is like taking in Calcutta from a five-star, luxury hotel. Young beautiful women with glossy hair and pristine ball gowns radiate with lush sensuality as they pose like contestants at a beauty contest, or giggle and flirt with their male partners. They are framed by a back-drop of billowing white curtains and swaying palm trees and accompanied by vacuous, schmaltzy pop music. Couples frolic and tease each other in their sumptuous surroundings. While there is some Indian dance performed by the dazzling Shantala Shivalingappa as well as some kitschy Indian photos projected on the cyclorama, such superficial cultural references are the closest Bausch gets to any sort of informed commentary on India. Remember, Bausch just wasn't interested in the political or political correctness for that matter.

Left: Tanztheatre Wuppertal's Andrey Berezin, Shantala Shivalingappa, and Rainer Behr in Pina Bausch's "Nefés." Photo © Jochen Viehoff. Right: Julie Shanahan and Michael Strecker in Bausch's "Wiesenland." Photo © Bettina Stob.

The temptation is to try to read too many cultural references into each of the works; to imagine these cities through the eyes of Bausch, when really the ballets are mostly about the dancers themselves: their stories, their journeys. Each piece does, however, carry a whimsical association with each city, its cultural characteristics or rituals. There's the hamam in "Nefes" in which men in towels walk on stage and lie down while others squeeze bubbles on their backs or massage them, and the rubble, guns, and tawdry costumes of "Palermo, Palermo," suggesting the detritus produced by years of gang warfare. In "Agua," footage of the Amazon and Brazilian drummers fills in the local color, while in "Bamboo Blues," the gaudy images of the god Krishna and stills from Bollywood movies connect to some vague cultural identity.

If you were an audience member who watched the works without having had any prior information, you would be hard pressed to identify each country or city. Bausch is neither that specific nor literal. The music, which doesn't give many more clues about each place, is arranged by different musical directors and is a compilation of indigenous and global pop music. Some of it is banal and cheesy, bland hotel-lobby music, while other tracks are richly idiosyncratic or atmospheric. Whether you like this recorded music or not, it always works as an effective trigger for the movement.

It was a privilege to see five works (1-2 per week), and observe the common themes which emerged from World Cities to give the whole season coherence, flow and resonance. The theme which stands out as linking the five works that I saw is that of water: water pools on stage and pouring down from above ("Nefes"), water dripping from the mossy, grass covered backdrop in "Wiesenland," and the pools, buckets or showers in which the dancers wash their bodies, hair and clothes, in repeating rituals.

Hair is plentiful in every work, long, shiny and worn loose. The dancers swing their hair like an extra limb, often using it to initiate turns or spirals, but they also use their locks as props, to disguise their faces, to brush the floor or even to slap an over- attentive lover.

In true Bauschian style the dancers interact with the audience, giving out food or asking questions, and if you're lucky enough to sit on the front row, you become part of the show. Food also appears in abundance, at picnics, in romantic restaurant scenarios, for cocktail parties. In every piece a bottle of champagne is produced and numerous cigarettes smoked.

Helena Pikon of Tanztheatre Wuppertal in Pina Bausch's "Wiesenland." Photo Rolph Ebertowski.

Desire is what every piece, and performance, is really about. The dancers are searching continuously for something -- love, fame, food -- but ultimately never find anything. No end of fine dining, cocktail parties, champagne bottles or picnics can ever seem to bring lasting contentment. For example, in "Palermo, Palermo" the rangy Australian dancer, Julie Shanahan, plays a neurotic diva who demands individual men to come on stage and hug her. They do in frenzied repetition, but she can't feel anything, screams at them to hug her again then finally shouts at them to leave her in peace. Helena Pikon wants to be loved in "Wiesenland," and asks members of the audience whether they have found love, then drifts off dreamily muttering about being an angel. The dancers do not cease to search but don't know what they're looking for. There is no closure, no end to their unquenchable desire.

Repetition of dance steps and acted tableaux bring welcome familiarity and continuity in these long works, with scenes enacted at the beginning recurring near the end, such as the hamam water rituals in "Nefes" and the countless picnics and chorus line in "Palermo, Palermo," in which the dancers walk slowly downstage with apples balanced on their heads.

Patterns emerge through the repetition of intense solos which are like character sketches for each of the dancers, and tend to feature a mixture of expressive spirals, complex, virtuosic technique and idiosyncratic gestures. Fluid, personal choreographic material is juxtaposed with short spoken monologues, songs, non-sequitor phrases, flirty duets, and ultimately an action performed in unison with the full company. One example of this unison is the human chain the company forms as the dancers shuffle along on their knees in a snaky procession back and forth along the stage in "Nefes." Another is when the company leaps across the stage in frog poses in "Palermo, Palermo."

What I love about the repetition is that the dancers become like characters in a cartoon strip. We soon expect them to behave in a certain way and are delighted when they do something abnormal. Cristiana Morganti, a comical, charismatic yet good natured personality is trying to perform a solo but is repeatedly interrupted by other dancers in "Bamboo Blues. " She finally loses it and stamps off stage. Nazareth Panadero, a verbal staple in the Bausch canon who is very severe and speaks in a controlling manner, declares in "Nefes" that she is too fat for the man she likes, and recites an erotic poem in "Palermo, Palermo." Both are spoken in exactly the same reprimanding tone of voice.

Tanztheatre Wuppertal's Andrey Berezin in Pina Bausch's "Palermo Palermo." Photo © Ulli Weiss.

All the works are very similar in their movement vocabulary, pacing and structure, but what distinguishes each one is the string of extraordinary, surreal events, personages, and even creatures which appear like waves of electric currents jogging us into disbelief and delight: the live animals on stage, namely the dog in "Palermo, Palermo" and the chickens in "Wiesenland"; the ambiguous, David Lynchian character played by Andrey Berezin, a cross dressing boxer/assassin in "Palermo, Palermo," a dandy pushing a shopping trolley or a builder constructing furniture on a grassy mound in "Wiesenland." In "Agua" the male performers parade across the stage in fantastically stupid platform shoes, grinning at us inanely, oblivious to how idiotic they look.

Often these moments of thrilling and frequently unsettling incredulity take the form of the dancers playing practical jokes on each other, such as when two men tease the chaotic over-emotional dancer Aida Vainieri in "Wiesenland" as she tries to give up smoking. They walk up slowly behind her, smoking, bend down and exhale their cigarette smoke into her long, curly hair so that she looks like she's literally on fire. She gazes out from the halo of smoke like a bewildered Madonna.

Another pleasurable consequence of feasting my eyes on the company so frequently over this relatively short period is that they have become familiar like friends. I won't forget Ruth Amarante's intense, forlorn expression, Rainer Behr's sinewy virtuosic moves, Na Young Kim's grounded wisdom, Ditta Miranda Jasifi's cheeky playfulness, or Anna Wehsarg's languid composure. Each dancer has made his or her mark; in addition to those already mentioned above, Pablo Aran Gimeno, Damiano Ottavio Bigi, Ales Cucek, Silvia Farias Heredia, Daphnis Kokkinos, Eddie Martinez, Thusnelda Mercy, Pascal Merighi, Jorge Puerta Armenta, Franko Schmidt, Azusa Seyama, Michael Strecker, Fernando Suels Mendoza ,Kenji Takagi, Clementine Deluy, Barbara Kaufmann, Dominique Mercy (in "Palermo, Palermo"), Jean-Laurent Sasportes, and Tsai-Chin Yu. Each one is unique in terms of looks, personality and skill. They are the real celebrities of the theater and a formidable credit to Bausch herself for finding and developing them (or letting them develop). At the final curtain call, I wept.

Tanztheatre Wuppertal in Pina Bausch's "Viktor." Photo © Ulli Weiss.

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