Café Müller/The Rite of Spring - Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
17 March 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington
Reviewed by Jan Bolwell
New Zealand has waited many decades to see Pina Bausch’s brand of dance theatre. By way of introducing local audiences to her dance aesthetic, it is fitting that we see two of her early works Café Müller (1978) and The Rite of Spring (1975). Unlike the Festival’s Australian dance offering, Complexity of Belonging, a solipsistic adolescent display of anomie, Pina Bausch delivers dance theatre for grownups.
Café Müller, with its six distinctive disturbed and disturbing characters, is a dark quintessentially European work that reminds one of numerous threatening café scenes in films about wartime Europe. This nihilistic, paranoiac and claustrophobic environment where spectral women walk blindly into chairs and tables that are flung across the floor by a man with increasingly manic energy, where bodies crash into and are flung against walls before sinking to the floor, where a be-wigged woman totters memorably and aimlessly around the stage in her orange high heel shoes, sets up a scene that draws you powerfully into its vortex. There have been so many Bausch imitators since the 1970s that it is difficult to look at works like Café Müller today and to see it as revolutionary in its approach to dance theatre. Repetition is a device that Bausch uses to powerful effect in Café Müller, but unlike her less able copyists, Bausch uses it to wrack up the tension before it dissolves because it has to. Purcell’s operatic music soars through the air intermittently providing an almost soothing antidote to the strange anarchy on stage. The performers are superb both as actors and dancers. Their fluid gestural language is expertly timed and delivered and you know you are witnessing performers with a deeply embedded understanding of the work. What a treat!
The Rite of Spring begins with the stage crew laying thick layers of peat and carefully and methodically raking it over. It truly is the prelude to the work and sets up a great air of anticipation in the house. This Rite is visceral, brutal, with the battle lines clearly drawn between the large cast of male and female dancers who drive themselves, phalanx- like across the stage in strongly grounded ritualistic, unison dancing. The bodies sweat, pant and are covered in dirt as a primeval, sexually charged energy pervades the space. There is nothing pretty about this dancing, and I could not help but compare it to the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent version of the Stravinsky score ‘Milagros’ by the talented choreographer Javier de Frutos. His pared back, minimalist and less aggressive Rite was equally enjoyable. But as with the many Rites of Spring that I have witnessed by numerous dance companies, the brilliance of Stravinsky’s music always wins out in the end. It is the music that drives the energy of the work, it is the music that is in command. While the dance of the Sacrificial Victim at the end of The Rite of Spring is danced passionately and maniacally by a petite Asian woman in an extraordinary display of endurance dancing, Pina Bausch’s choreography runs out of puff before the music ends. Stravinsky, as usual, has the final say.