March 13, 2008
Called the “Queen of German Dance Theater,” Pina Bausch is one of the most influential avant-garde figures of our time. She is returning to Tokyo this month with her Tanztheater Wuppertal dance company for their 11th tour since 1986.
Although she celebrates her 68th birthday in July, the chain-smoking, bright blue-eyed, long and lean pioneer of modern dance-theater still guarantees an unforgettable round of jaw-dropping performances. From March 20-30, Tanztheater Wuppertal will be offering two of her well-known pieces, “Palermo, Palermo” and “Vollmond (Full Moon).”
The director and choreographer for the German-based company for over three decades, Bausch likes Japan, and butoh dance in particular. She’s won three prestigious awards here, including the Inamori Foundation’s 2007 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy. Her 2004 piece titled “Tenchi” was inspired by the country when she and and her dancers stayed for about a month in Saitama in 2003, absorbing the culture and conjuring a “palette” for a choreographed work.
The Japanese also like Bausch. She hasn’t yet garnered the huge fan base she maintains in Europe and the United States, but that’s not because her performances are so unusual. It’s probably, instead, because many of the major Tokyo venues have, until now, refused to book her shows. Their reasons focus on the outrageous stage sets Bausch is famous for creating with her longtime set designer Alexandre Corazzola — although thrilling for audiences, the designs themselves can be hazardous.
In “Palermo, Palermo,” the performance opens with an enormous concrete-looking wall that crashes to the floor. First debuted in 1989, it’s said that the work mimics the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall weighs about eight tons with each of the almost 600 blocks coming in at 12 kg. Unless there is sturdy support, the falling wall could crush the floor, which traditionally in Japanese theaters contains small elevators which actors use to make dramatic entrances, as is often seen in kabuki.
“Palermo, Palermo,” running March 20-23 at Teatro del Giglio Showa, reflects the colorful and culturally diverse atmosphere of the Sicilian city where Bausch and her dancers resided for a time. Female dancers are dressed in vintage clothing that was designed or collected by Bausch’s longtime costume designer Marion Cito, and the music comes from collaborators Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider, whose version of Tchaikovsky’s “Sonata No. 1″ is played on pianos from the 1920s.
The stage of “Vollmond,” running March 27-30 at Shinjuku Bunka Center in Tokyo, features a river embedded in a 22-meter long frame that is 4 meters wide and 15 cm deep, with flowing water pumped from end to end. Dancers appear to swim in the channel, and water buckets, pet bottles and all forms of splashing and rain add to the excitement and drama. Drenched female dancers in clinging satin gowns fling their hair about in a “battle of the sexes” — a Bausch favorite theme.
Like the tempest in “Vollmond,” water has been a crucial element in Bausch’s works for almost three decades. The water though needs to be heated (and made germ-free to protect the dancers) and a 1985 performance of her “Arien” is well remembered as New York City audiences had to wait an hour and a half for the water to be ready.
Bausch purposely chooses dancers from a variety of countries, who all have their own distinct personalities and physical attributes, though most share classical dance backgrounds. To come up with the choreography, she asks her dancers to react to questions with a response or mood, a question-and-answer technique she’s developed since 1978. Almost like a dancer’s Zen koan, questions include: “What would you do with a corpse?” “Do something you are ashamed of.” “Move your favorite body part.”
Several members of the company have been with her for over 20 years, unusual for an art form in which youthful endurance is required. Bausch’s combination of dance and theatrical techniques allow dancers more freedom, though. There are now two Japanese members of the company, Kenji Takagi (who has German nationality) and Azusa Seyama, who will appear in these performances. Seyama is from Takasaki City in Gunma Prefecture. After joining a ballet company in the United States, she went to Europe where she was introduced to Tanztheater Wuppertal.
It’s been written in Dance magazine that, “Bausch says she wants the audience to trust their feelings and let happen what can happen to them,” and Bausch’s fans and followers themselves say they want to be disturbed. As Japanese avant-garde dance audiences have cut their teeth on butoh, the possibility of surprises may seem few. Still, Bausch, despite all her German angst, should have the power to disturb and delight them.