Pina Bausch, the celebrated German choreographer who died in 2009, grew up watching her father work at his cafe. In that setting, a stage of sorts, she was a witness to people and their behavior, with gestures and emotions — boredom, joy, sadness, levity — on display. She could observe what was said and, just as important, what was left unsaid.
When Bausch’s ambitious dance-theater productions captivate, they turn viewers into witnesses, too, watching choreography and behavior mingle in surreal, sometimes forceful or humorous ways. The notion of place is crucial. Some of her works were influenced by residencies in which her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, underwent a creative immersions, as with “Bamboo Blues” (India) and “Nefés” (Turkey).
In “Água” (2001), a work that loses its luster over time, that place is Brazil. The opening is pungent: Taylor Drury, walking to the front of stage, peels an orange, which she eats with gusto — she gasps and moans as she swallows its juicy flesh — while telling a story about the night she experienced a cramp in her leg. The pain caused her to jump out of bed. She went to the window and witnessed a transporting scene: a sky, beautifully full of stars. She says she thought to herself, “Thank god I got this cramp.”
“Água,” making its United States premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is not a dark work like many of Bausch’s earlier dances; it’s overflowing with whimsy. That carries with it a special kind of pain because, let’s face it, we aren’t exactly living in whimsical times. The production is over two decades old, and it shows.
It also features Bausch’s familiar stylistic obsessions: The women wear their hair long and loose — it’s a veil, an extra limb, even, as it glides and slices the air. Their form-fitting slip dresses graze the floor — unless they’re wearing heels, which happens frequently. In the background throughout much of the work is film by Peter Pabst that shows palm trees blowing in the wind, street percussionists, rainforests, waterfalls and wide-open skies.
The effect of watching blustery movement against the film’s fast moving landscape is dizzying. Sometimes it seems we are meant to feel we’re in a boat racing through water. It’s not a nice sensation. But it does underscore how much “Água” has in common with a commercial put out by a tourist board. Smile like you mean it!This is fun.
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But is it? There are palm trees and lounge furniture, the kind of white, outdoor sofa situation that you might find scattered around a bar at a resort. “Água,” at a meandering three hours, can feel like the tail end of a beach vacation that started out promisingly, but lasted a day too long. It just won’t end; you start to notice stains on the sofas.
Bausch’s choreography, which frequently returns to the solo form, doesn’t develop into much of anything here beyond yearning reaches and spirals to the floor. The women make more of an impression than the men, but the seduction scenes, even those dotted with humor, have a staleness to them. There are disturbing lifts, as when the men lift the women from behind from their armpits: Stuck in space, the women furiously cycle their feet and arms, desperate to free themselves. Manhandling women as a mode of dance partnering hasn’t aged well. Neither does the sense that we are, at times, witnessing giddy tourists invading a country — clueless about its culture.
Certain cast members have finesse with the material: Julie Shanahan, a company veteran, delivers monologues with ease as she uses the weight and silkiness of her body to punctuate her words. “Actually, I wanted to do something really beautiful for you,” she announces, “but I don’t know how.”
She wanted to burn paper, to saw off the leg of a table. (She tries, comically.) “I wanted to go crazy,” she says. “But it’s not possible.”
Her humor, her way of switching from earnest to demonic to worried has the flavor of vintage Bausch; at their best, those performances teetered dexterously on the edge of reality and fantasy. Tsai-Chin Yu, another powerful dancer, moves like air, her delicacy masking a devilish humor. In one section, she asks audience members in the front row where they are from and then — wearing only one boot — she plants herself center stage and kicks it off her foot and into the air.
She observes the position it lands in and predicts the weather — cloudy in New York City, rain in Minnesota. It’s a silly game, but her smile is winning. So is the eclectic music that accompanies “Água,” including selections by PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, the Tiger Lillies, St. Germain and Amon Tobin.
The dancers strip down to their bathing suits (the costumes are by Marion Cito) and hold towels featuring lascivious images of body parts over their own — fourth-grade humor without the innocence — but at least it signals a break from the looping motion-sickness-inducing films. In one moment, primates are shown climbing up and hanging from trees; a dancer follows suit, dangling on a palm tree, its branch hanging over part of the stage.
And then there is the water element. As the film shifts its backdrop to gushing waterfalls, the dancers take chugs from water bottles and, with their mouths, spray the liquid onto each other and the stage. They piece together a makeshift gutter — each holding a section of it — and make it seem as if water were dribbing from the screen. But mainly they spit. I wanted the stage to turn into a rainforest. Bausch, after all, was known for making such experiences happen, for bringing the outside in. Not this time.
But what is Bausch without Bausch? Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch has undergone changes in leadership in the years since Bausch died suddenly — only days after learning that she had cancer. The company is now under the direction of the French choreographer Boris Charmatz, an experimentalist with a penchant for dance history. I don’t think he is the type to choreograph works influenced by a country. Does Charmatz care about hair and long dresses? It’s hard to know what his Tanztheater Wuppertal will look like. But “Água” proves something: It’s time to take some risks.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
“Água” runs through March 19; bam.org.
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