Postmodern dance goddess Pina Bausch’s first non-European commission finds her in an uncharacteristically light, even frivolous humor, though at 3 hours, her epic-scaled series of quasi-vaudevillian vignettes is sure to baffle and exasperate as well as delight viewers during its Stateside tour.
On opening night outside Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, several figures from the local alternative dance scene staged a silent protest against this $ 1.2 million project, bankrolled by several nonprofit U.S. presenters. Their point is well taken: At a time when many cutting-edge companies are being defunded out of existence, such extravagant support for a well-funded foreign talent can be seen as a direct slap.
Yet Bausch’s work rather ponderously titled, in full, “Nur Du (Only You), A Piece by Pina Bausch” can also be viewed from a distance as a reprimand of our sorry governmental arts-funding state, which has forced similarly ambitious home-grown experimentalists like Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group to seek regular commissions in Europe. “Nur Du” may invite disparate responses, but its sheer scale invigorates in ways that U.S. multidisciplinarians now seldom have the luxury of exploring. More’s the pity.
The first, most startling visual element apparent here is longtime collaborator Peter Pabst’s set design a grove of monumental “redwood” trunks. Inserted planks allow dancers to climb the trees on occasion. Yet this backdrop proves largely irrelevant, as “Nur Du” (ostensibly about the American West) seldom departs from its obsession with urban life reflecting classic 1950s notions of erotic/commodity fetishism. Marion Cito’s slightly garish cocktail-party costumes (dapper-casual for the men, skimpy-gaudy for the women) are retro-cool, as are the musical choices. Latter are archival tracks, ranging from vintage R&B and rock to smoldering Latin sounds and Tin Pan Alley standards.
Like a DJ, Bausch simply keeps providing new stimuli there’s no narrative or even thematic glue here, just one turn after another. Given her large company size, there are precious few ensemble (even small-group) dances. Instead, we get a near-structureless series of turns.
Many are funny, absurdist party tricks, like one man’s nude bath in a plastic water bag, or the brief costume oddity that has live mice scuttling within see-through unisex bras. Some gags are right out of a ’90s “Hellzapoppin,” e.g. a woman’s alarmed doffing of layer-upon-layered panties. Performers’ spoken-word contributions run the gamut from elliptical stories to a hilarious cheerleading demo and one movie-dialogue quotefest (accompanied by scenes from Bette Davis pics and the 1946 “The Postman Always Rings Twice”).
Real dance is somewhat confined to solos, in which men get far greater latitude than the women. (Some personalities provide a semblance of congruity, like kittenish-sylvan blonde Julie Stanzak, Jan Minarik’s camp-drag riffs, or another male dancer’s recurrent Buster Keaton-ish slapstick balleticism.)
Given the semi-ironic Americanist pastiche/homage nature of this project, it’s difficult to characterize Bausch’s style here loving, Tharp-esque re-creations of jitterbug and generic date slow-dance collide against thornier toyings with or against romantic partnering. As is her wont, Bausch often enforces bravado as a near-sadistic challenge to her dancers’ physical limits: The woman slowly lowered floorward by her hair alone being just one example.
Bausch has been accused of covert misogyny. In flashes, “Nur Du” supports that notion. The ragdoll-flexible, wraith-skinny, smirking women here suggest abuse as preordained. “Nur Du” is also cloudy in its overall concept of “America.” But it does seem aligned to predictably reconstructed 1950s notions about home, hearth, and gender complacency. Bausch is saying something very glib about America its ideological seduction, vigor, shallowness, joy, material fixation and dull practicality. Yet her continually surprising methods keep us intrigued.
The show drags somewhat after intermission, as select movement and text motifs recur and a particularly flagging segment has performers strewing toys and debris around the stage. Still, interest is never lost entirely, even if the too-casual close wilts short of act one’s cumulative, ensemble-dance excitement. This Stateside gamble must be counted a prestigious win overall.