The Brooklyn Academy was packed on July 2, 1984 when Tanztheater Wuppertal made its New York debut. The first of its two programs consisted of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller (1978) and The Rite of Spring (1975), introducing us to Bausch’s aesthetic in ways that I now realize were strategically clever. In these two pieces, unlike in her later ones, no one talked, no one sang, and no one chatted up spectators in the front row. Dancing dominated. We were, however, primed to be amazed, mystified, outraged, thrilled, and even provoked into laughter.
Bausch had adhered to the scenario of Igor Stravinsky’s well-known Le Sacre du Printemps, written for Nijinsky’s 1913 ballet: a primal tribe chooses a virgin to dance herself to death in order to assure the coming of spring. Rolf Borzik ’s scene design, however, was unlike anything we’d seen: a stage floor covered with peat. As the performers thundered across it and fell onto it, the dirt stuck to the men’s increasingly sweaty torsos and stained the women’s flimsy dresses, intensifying the impact of their efforts. Unlike previous choreographers working with that music, Bausch showed us how candidates for the fatal solo felt about it. One after another, each in her own way, women emerge from their cluster and approach the leader of the ritual, each holding the red dress that we realize the chosen one will wear. We too are in suspense: which “maiden” will he select? In 1984, it didn’t occur to me that behind the primal ritual might lurk a tale of dancers preparing for an audition and, in the end, failing.
Café Müller/The Rite of Spring
September 14 – september 24, 2017
Bausch understood the allure of movement and form in contemporary American dance. After graduating from the Folkwangschule in Essen, Germany, she had spent 1960–61 as a special student at the Juilliard School, while also performing in Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer’s company. I saw her in a piece Antony Tudor created at Juilliard. One of several women wearing black tutus and headdresses, she was the thinnest person I’d ever seen, a spider on pointe. She also danced briefly in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and appeared in Paul Taylor’s Tablet.
George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham had taught American dance lovers not to look for “meanings” in dance, to let the interplay of move- ment, sound, and decor stir our responses. Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” further influenced us to focus on an artwork ’s “sensuous surface” and not probe too deeply into to what lay behind it. A symposium organized by BAM after Tanztheater Wuppertal’s 1985 season there led to heated debate. Were not movement and form inevitably expressive? Did Bausch not structure emotion?
In 1984, watching Café Müller’s six dancers performing to snatches of “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell’s 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas (“Oh let me, let me weep”), I didn’t think beyond the immediate picture: Bausch a pale, very thin sleepwalker in a long clinging gown wandering in what looked like a spartan college cafeteria after hours, while a man (interestingly, the designer Borzik, her lover) raced to keep ahead of her and push chairs out of her way.
Watching the piece in 2017, I remembered that Bausch’s family ran a tavern. Nazareth Panadero, bustling watchfully in and out with little high-heeled steps, could be someone’s grandmother or aunt. I looked at a memorable vignette through another lens. A man in a suit keeps prying apart an embraced couple and repositioning them so that the male is holding the female the way you’d hold a tired child; the minute the arranger starts to walk out the door, the other guy’s arms go limp, the woman falls, then rises into the initial embrace. After a while you stop counting the number of times these actions repeat, with increasing speed and the resulting inefficiency.
In 1984, having also seen Bluebeard in 1977 and 1980—A Piece by Pina Bausch, I titled my review for The Village Voice, “Please Do It Again, Do It Again, Again, Again. . .” The amount of repetition had struck me powerfully. During Café Müller in 2017, I thought fleetingly of a father and daughter. Is he trying to keep her a child? To give her away? Developments in contemporary dance have nudged me into new perspectives.
We soon acclimated to Bausch’s hours-long theatrical montages, to the startlingly inventive games—cruel or amusing—that the dancers played. To the stoicism with which women endured men’s tenderness turned punitive. We watched men frolicking about in dresses. We listened while each dancer told us, say, what she or he feared most. We fell in love with them all. In 1985, we waited 90 minutes for Arien to begin, because the few inches of water that covered the stage hadn’t arrived in time to be heated. I don’t recollect many people leaving.