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Merilyn Jackson
Brooklyn Academy of Music
United States
New York City
New York
Brooklyn, NY

Once Again Pina Bausch Wuppertal Tanztheater at Brooklyn Academy of Music

by Merilyn Jackson
December 5, 2006
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 636-4111
See Pina Bausch at BAM starting on December 8, 2006!
Performances: Dec. 8, 9, 14-16 at 7:30pm; Dec. 10 at 3pm; Dec.12 at 7pm
Tickets: $25, 50, 75, 85

(Also see Merilyn Jackson's previous article about Pina Bausch)

One October night in 1996, I sat nervously at a desert resort's wood plank table overlooking Avenida del Yaqui in Tempe, Arizona. I had just flown in from Philadelphia to interview the world's most mysterious, elegant, and formidable choreographer – Pina Bausch, the founding director of Germany's famed Wuppertal Tanzteater. She came to Arizona to mount a show that was only seen out west, Nur Du. The title is a translation of the Platter's song, Only You, one of more than 20 song snippets in the work. A consortium of four universities, including Arizona State, funded the show at a cost of two million dollars.

Colleen Jennings-Rogginsack directs the programs at Gammage Auditorium on the main campus of ASU and without her there might not be any dance in the desert. The project was her brainchild but partnering with the other universities meant that Bausch had to satisfy the geographies of the funders — desert, California's redwood forests, Tex-Mex culture and the Pacific Ocean, which was represented by a two-ton whale.

Her 2004 Nefes resulted from her travels to Turkey in 2002 and has its American premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music December 8. Bausch originally wanted the set for this latest show to be just as crowded as the one for Nur Du and bustling with big-city noise.

But the war in Iraq had its effect on her. She felt she needed calm as an antidote to the war. The set for Nefes will be much simpler – chairs, they're always there, as are long, beautiful manes of hair the women recklessly toss around, a pond of water and spectacular videography. Snippets of the work on a DVD show soloists using the pond in anything but a calm way. They explode into ferocious dancing, crashing through the pond. The husky-voiced Nazareth Panadero, a long-time Wuppertaler, runs screaming in the path of a bus looming over her on screen.

Bausch soaked up Istanbul's Turkish delights — the Bosphorus, the bathhouses, the soap bubbles better than she soaked up the desert sun in the Southwestern states ten years ago.

The western resort was an unlikely place to meet her back then. Strapping, tow-headed dudes in chaps and red neckerchiefs served barbecue and beans to our large group. Sawdust covered the rough-hewn floors; the lighting was basement recroom at best. But Bausch discovered quirky affinities to this poor little corner of earth.

With virginal looks that recall the beauty of Garbo with the severity of a headmistress or mother superior, Bausch is an intimidating character. I do not know if her practice of wearing widow's black predates the death of her husband Rolf in 1980, but she punctuates her dark garb with gorgeous, multicolored scarves. Now, she arranges and re-arranges jewel-toned stripes around her shoulders.

After being introduced and seated next to her, I sat tongue-tied for a few moments. She waited placidly with the barest flicker of amusement at my discomfort. Then I remembered the delicate dinosaur egg plums I had carried on the plane with me that morning. I had seen them in a market the night before, and some impulse told me to buy a couple of dozen to bring to her. I reached down to the sack and withdrew one, holding it out in my palm. Her hands fluttered to her chest as she cried, "For me?"

I nodded, pleased to surprise her with the little beauty's striated mauve and white skin. I asked her what she knew about the Southwest. "Really, not very much," she said. "I am here to learn."

I divide my time between Philadelphia and Phoenix, and I knew we were within a mile of the Yaqui town of Guadalupe, where there were things that, as a dancer and choreographer, might intrigue her. I barraged her with questions.

"Would you like to see a Yaqui Indian town where packs of dogs roam free in the dust, gaunt and taut as your dancers? Would you like to see where the Yaqui dance their Easter Deer dances? Where they dance the rosary?"

She met each question with that Garbo-esque flutter of hands across her chest. "Really?" "Could I?" "Where?"

I looked down at the big yellow star spinning slowly on the Carl's Junior sign at the corner of Avenida del Yaqui, which changes from Priest Drive when it crosses Baseline into the one square mile Yaqui township.

"See that gold star down there?" I pointed. "It's right there. I could take you to see the Yaqui Temple and the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe tomorrow morning if you like."

The hands fluttered to the chest again as Bausch leaned in to me. "So close?" she asked drawing out her vowel.

Bausch would not get to see the Easter ceremonies. But I knew that her designer Peter Pabst would have an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Nur Du. I thought she might like to see the inside of the temple where the townspeople keep their icons of the Virgin. Before I went to pick her up, I called the church secretary, the owner of my favorite tamale stand, and even the mayor to see if someone would open the Yaqui Temple doors for us. I had written a feature on the town for Arizona Highways Magazine a couple of years earlier and knew them all.

No one answered, so I left messages. This was before we all had cell phones. Yet, when we pulled up at 10:30, the doors that were only open at Easter time and during funerals, miraculously yawned open and candles in tall glass columns flickered along the dirt floor.

As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we noticed a town resident had quietly followed us. After some conversation about the temple and the new roof it needed, I introduced Bausch to him, explaining that she was a dancer from Germany. Pulling himself up taller and looking us in the eye for the first time, he said, "I too am a dancer. I am Richard A. Valencia, head of the Matachini Yaqui dancers."

"I have 12 dancers," he said, defiantly, "How many do you have?" Bausch's hands crossed her chest apologetically. In a deeply gracious gesture, she bowed slightly, tipping her head as if to meet his height, "I have 28."

Valencia received this information stoically, and after giving him a donation to the new roof fund and inviting him and his dancers to her show, we made our way over to DeLeon's Western Wear.

Guillermo DeLeon is a tall, striking man who presides over a shop crammed with western wear, serious tack, riding gear, and tourista trinkets. I introduced Bausch to him and told him about her upcoming concert at Gammage Auditorium nearby. DeLeon said, "Of course, Wuppertal."

Finally, Bausch is flabbergasted. "You know it?"

"Yes, my daughter is a choreographer at UCLA. My wife and I took her to Germany to see your company."

We were stunned to learn that she was known even in this little corner. We chatted with DeLeon for a while and he promised to come to the show. Bausch promised tickets for him. I noticed it was time to get her back to rehearsals and started rushing her. But she spied a basket of Mexican paper flowers and wanted to take some, perhaps for a new work. When she had difficulty choosing quickly from the vast palette of colors, DeLeon gallantly flung hundreds of flowers at her feet. Kneeling among them, she quickly picked the colors she wanted. DeLeon would not accept her money. Soon we were back in the sunny plaza. "Let's get you into the shade after only a few yards," I said, "your skin is beginning to mottle, like the plums."

I took her under the covered portico "This is where I come to dance sometimes," I said pointing to a concrete square. Bausch looked puzzled and I told her about the mariachi bands that play every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. We talked then just as two women, as mothers. She tells me about her son Rolf, a music student, then in his late teens. She lives with his poet father, Ronald Kay.

A couple of years later, the Wuppertal Tanzteater returned to Gammage to perform one of her most infamous pieces, Carnations (Nelken, in German), where the stage is studded with thousands of pink carnations and four black mastiff-like dogs handled by brawny trainers roam among the dancers.

The piece premiered years before Bausch visited Guadalupe with me. The day after the Carnations performance Dominique Mercy, a Wuppertaler then for more than 28 years and one of the most brilliant comedic dancers on the globe, accepted an invitation to drive out to Canyon Lake for a swim and a picnic. We ate pate and what passes for French bread in Arizona on a muddy spit of ground after his swim. I told him about the dogs running wild in Guadalupe and the incident with DeLeon and how the carpet of paper flowers he threw out around Bausch had reminded me of Carnations.

"Nelken is like that," Mercy said, "Like going through a little journey with little stops along the way. We make theater out of life."

The Yaqui fought most bravely and fiercely against the Spanish conquistadors and when their numbers were decimated, they "converted." Defeated, they began to theatricalize life as it had been. To watch their Deer Dances at Easter, it is clear that they were more into subversion than conversion. I am sorry that Bausch did not get to see their ceremonies. Might she have conceived Nur Du differently if she had seen the Yaqui wooden swords painted with flowers to represent the blood of Christ? Or, what if she had seen them dancing the Rosary over three hours, the minimal length of one of her shows?

Despite what magic moments Bausch may have had in Guadalupe, she did not mirror them in Nur Du nor that I have seen in any of her subsequent works. I would not be surprised to see some inkling of them in a future work, subverted, converted or reverted.

This new piece by Bausch, Nefes, means breath in Turkish — the stuff of life. Certainly Bausch will always make theater out of life. Istanbul — another stop along her journey.

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
30 Lafayette Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217-1486
Dec. 8, 9, 14-16 at 7:30pm; Dec. 10 at 3pm; Dec.12 at 7pm
Tickets: $25, 50, 75, 85
Pina Bausch Dance Company performs 'Nefes'

Pina Bausch Dance Company performs "Nefes"

Photo © & courtesy of Ursula Kaufmann

Pina Bausch Dance Company performs 'Nefes'

Pina Bausch Dance Company performs "Nefes"

Photo © & courtesy of Bettina Stob

Pina Bausch Dance Company performs 'Nefes'

Pina Bausch Dance Company performs "Nefes"

Photo © & courtesy of Ursula Kaufmann

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