Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pina Bausch's Nur Du

Once upon a time, before blogs, when we just barely had email, I used to write reviews for a small, scholarly magazine, P-FORM. It was based out of the former Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, IL. The relationship between RSG and P-Form was a symbiotic one and the magazine served as a place for artists to engage in scholarly documentation and discourse of performance oriented art.

One of the pieces I wrote for P-FORM was this review of a Pina Bausch Tanztheatre Wupperthal performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The PDF I have of the actual article is of such poor quality that it is unreadable and my copy of the magazine seems to have been lost in the sands of time - or moves from one apartment to another. Therefore, I post the "as printed" text of the review here below. The photo above accompanied the review, it was from their press kit. I don't know the photographer's name or I would give credit here.

I'm so glad I was able to see Pina's work performed while she was still living. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before when I first encountered her work on television while living in Berlin.

Kudos to Brendan deVallance for putting his P-FORM material out there on the internet and the RSG Archive housed at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (my alma mater) for holding on to such a significant chunk of Chicago art history and no doubt at least some of the P-FORM material.

Pina Bausch Tanztheatre Wupperthal
“Nur Du” (Only You)
The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles California
October 10-12, 1996

American dance audiences and critics have often dismissed Pina Bausch and her Tanztheatre Wupperthal for, as they see it, her display of violence against women, portraying them as helpless victims. Twelve years ago, when Bausch and the Tanztheatre Wupperthal first came to the United States, American audiences found the work shocking, brutal, and Teutonically avant garde. Today audiences might find the work puzzling at most.

In Nur Du, countless references are made to American cultural stereotypes as defined by Hollywood and our fast-paced, narcissistic consumer culture. Nur Du is littered with images of America, some right on, others misunderstood. Much is made of film-noir iconography, which doesn’t communicate to us the way it can to Europeans. Yet, the influence of technology on American culture has been completely ignored. This can be explained by a crucial difference between the US and Germany. America is a technological first-world nation. An estimated ten percent of our citizens are hooked up to the Internet and that number grows exponentially. Germany, with its tradition of broad social benefits (state subsidies for arts and culture, health care, and lengthy vacations for workers) and the fiscal burden of re-unification have kept that country a non-technological first world nation. Economically speaking, this reduction of buying power has prevented Germany from joining the US as a cultural/technological equal.

The set of Nur Du is a grove of gargantuan tree trunks that call forth a primeval wood. Props include the ubiquitous chair, used in clever, simple ways. The women wear long and flowing or A-line knee length dresses in pastel colors or red, black or white. The men are clad in slacks and jackets that appear one size to large giving them a casual, slouchy look. All the women dance in high heels or barefoot, the men wear oxfords or are similarly unshod.

To the song “Sugar in the Morning”, a long line of chorines flip their heads in time to the beat of the music, their hair swirling from side to side and their hands making equally fluid motions. Aida Vainieri enters with a mic on a stand and a clear plastic box, like those used in carry out restaurants. She stands in front of the mic and speaks in a high pitched voice to someone or something, possibly a cat. This is punctuated by her vigorously licking the inside of the plastic container in front of the microphone and making yowling sounds. It is pleasantly perverse. In another scene Nazareth Panadero enters and crosses down stage left where she pauses and recites the names of the cast members, heavily rolling the R’s in each. “Rrregina, Rrrruth, Rrrrainerrrr, See? I can do it. He cannot.” She continues, relishing each R sound. “Andrrre, Barrrrbarrrra, Marrrrrigia, Nazarrreth, Ferrrrrrrrrnando. I can do it. He cannot!” and with that she abruptly exits.

Fernando Suels and Rainer Behr enter from stage left. Behr has a plastic bag around his neck and Suels carries a bucket. Behr pulls the plastic up over his face and Suels slowly pours water into it. The magnifying effect of the water through the plastic is hilarious. Like a Jerry Lewis gag, Behr, now encased in his own personal fishbowl blows a few bubbles for effect.

Later, Panadero enters again. She stands and glares at the audience. She hunches up her shoulders and says “big shoulders”. She pulls back her head and says “double chin”. She makes herself appear larger than life. “I feel really thick. Thick skin. Rain and storm can come and nothing can happen.” she growls. Portraying an imperviousness that is at once comical and tragic. Referencing her earlier scene she finishes with, “I can do it. He cannot.” The effect of one sight gag after another reinforces a cabaret or variety show format.

Over time Bausch has defined her aesthetic and many of her signature moves crop up in Nur Du. Crawling across walls and over other performers, the chorus line up, the repetitive hand and body motions derivative of everyday activities, absurdities and Tourette’s-like movement are classic Bausch. The numerous solos seem out of context and somewhat gratuitous, as though placed to ensure that her dancers (each and every one) get their moment on stage.

Nur Du is an exercise in endurance viewing. The last dance and activity of the evening, a solo about exhaustion performed by Dominique Mercy, has him flopping across the stage and by this time (11:45 p.m. after an 8:00 p.m. curtain) the audience is as exhausted as the performer.

Welcome to Planet Pina. Her performers are like benevolent aliens come to communicate their message of mystery. They witness and testify American culture through a visceral filter of otherness and angst. With layers of irony and beauty, the sometimes ugly interaction between men and women is portrayed in a timeless fashion. There is no lesson here, no pedantic should or could but merely a demonstration of the pure sense of human movement and depth of emotion. Free from techno gadgetry, there are no TV’s, rear projection or special effects. Rather like Joseph Beuys, it is simple lighting combined with chalk, fur, sand, water, and leaves which compose the romantic scripture of Bauschian ciphers and mysteries.

These are the references I used in writing this review:
Birringer, Johannes
Pina Bausch: Dancing Across Borders
The Drama Review, Summer 1986

Yablonsky, Linda
Dance: Ensemble Work (Bill T. Jones and Pina Bausch)
Art In America, March 1995

Pina Bausch on the Internet
In the German language
Specific to Bausch’s performance of Nur Du in Austin, Texas

And finally, here's a link to some video of Nur Du.

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