Pina Bausch’s “travelogue” pieces were created in response to company residencies in far-flung locations (Los Angeles, Istanbul, São Paulo, Kolkata…), but as the World Cities season continues, as part of London 2012, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: you’re not going to get portraits of the places themselves. What you get are large, striking stage-sets that are loosely, sometimes tenuously connected with a locality: a redwood forest for Nur Du (California), a gaping grave for Viktor (Rome), a ginormous whale fluke for Ten Chi (Japan). And who turns up in each setting, every time? The same unmistakably Bauschian bunch of women in fabulous frocks and men in dark suits, with their scattershot collages of situational set-ups and playtime pranks, their shrieks and songs and simpers, their small obsessions and their grand follies; a gaggle of odds and sods who despite their assorted nationalities could only have come from one particular place: Wuppertal, Germany – the company home. These pieces, you realise, are not so much global travellers’ tales as reflections of Planet Pina.
That, it seems to me, is an honest stance – neither simplistically touristic, nor imperiously anthropological (Bausch, you might say, is much more interested in the Self than in the Other). Well fine, you might also say – but does that make it any good? The answer to that lies between you and the piece. I think Bausch holds up a mirror to our selves, and when her pieces work best you either feel a shock of recognition (oh my god, those funny-strange weirdos over there are actually us, over here), or you lose yourself in her looking-glass world and surrender your sense of composure. These are not reasoned responses. So if you find yourself doing “art appreciation” at a Bausch piece, I think it safe to say it’s not really happening for you. But if you start to feel a little unhinged – a bit in love, or in pain, or losing a bit of your mind – then yes, you and the performance have definitely got a thing going.
All this is by way of preamble to say that two really quite similar Bausch pieces provoked very different reactions in me: I appreciated Ten Chi, Bausch’s 2004 Japan piece, but I fell for the 1997 Der Fensterputzer (The Window Washer), made in Hong Kong. That preamble is also by way of an excuse: instead of comparing and contrasting and writing a reasoned review, I am going to obsess for a while about Fensterputzer, because I loved it. Why? Let me count the ways.
Peter Pabst’s set is dominated by a four metre high mountain of crimson flowers so lush that you want to dive right into it. The dancers do just that, several times, somersaulting joyfully into its plush sides or skiing down its slopes. Ditta Miranda Jasjfi peers out from inside it, like a hibernating creature emerging from its burrow into springtime. Those flowers appear everywhere. They fall from above like a soft rain. They are grabbed in big fistfuls and flung sky-high like exploding firecrackers. They are piled up into grid patterns like a municipal ground plan, so that you almost sense the buildings towering in the space above. One woman flings herself to the ground as if she’s jumped off a skyscraper, and a team of men arrive through the floral streets to carry off the corpse. In separate, flower-demarcated cubbyholes, couples copulate; through the roads people mill and run; and finally the flowers are swept up or blown away. It’s a brief scene, but in it you see cycles of life, love, death and then oblivion.
Mountains are metaphors. You can “move mountains”, and the dancers do that, hauling the vast flower cone about the stage like a volcanic island. You can “climb a mountain”, and they do that too, filing up and over it like a camel caravan on the move (on the backcloth, desert dunes and barren landscapes are projected); life’s strangely pointless journey again given touchingly simple form.
There is not a great deal of dancing (Bausch is generally more interested in situations and set-ups than in elaborating choreographic ideas) but I loved how much sheer pleasure there is in the sensation of motion and momentum. Ruth Amarante stands on her partner’s thighs and stretches outwards as if leaning into space, then, in an exquisite sequence, two men let her fall and fly, catching her as she swoons and swinging her skywards, a body made of weight and air. There’s a similar floating, fleeting pleasure as the company men hold up gauzy dresses, and the women slip in and out of them on the run, as if they were gossamer skins, lightly donned and discarded. Sometimes the motion turns melancholic: a woman, hanging dreamily from her partner’s neck, is lowered tenderly to the floor and left lying alone; literally, he lets her down gently.
Some of the scenes are “adult”, knowingly ironic and sexy: Mechthild Großmann (who is good at this kind of thing) hectoring the front row about having the correct tickets, fellating an ice cream cone, or repeatedly blaming a ruined relationship on her failure to continue her “domestic exercises” (basically, ab-toning). Nazareth Panadero lies like a stone goddess while a man intones airport information announcements at her, his voice increasingly heavy with breathy desire. There is much else, often fleeting, even profligate – a car, a bridge, a flamethrower; light audience interaction, plenty of jokes; even the window washer himself, Andrey Berezin, hoisted up to hang high above the stage, a workaday witness to the world below.
But what I really loved was how much action was childike, even infantile (at one point, a kitsch giant baby is projected on the backcloth). There are games galore: a mass counting and clapping song, a pat-a-cake pair, a tense tag game between a floorbound man and an encroaching circle of women. Everyone bounces gleefully on mattresses and dives inside duvets; Regina Advento makes her hand a wriggly spider that tickles her own underarm; and days later, I am still tickled by a little acting song by Fernando Suels Mendoza and Helena Pikon, about a melon.
Choreographers are sometimes said to feel that their creations are like their babies. Bausch, I think, is a little different here: her performers are like her children, and she both guides and gives rein to their wayward, sundry selves. In Fensterputzer, she seems amused and at heart delighted by their differences, embracing their various flaws and foibles and follies. She loves them like a mother, just as they are.