Women in summery evening gowns and high-heeled slippers stroll proudly across the stage, each flanked by two crouching men who make her skirt flutter as she goes. This image, like many that Pina Bausch has created, is enigmatic and unforgettable. In the context of Nefés, a collage of her company's memories of Istanbul, the passage could refer to the status of some Turkish women as guarded treasures, but also to balmy wind and ocean waves.
Nefés is one of several works Bausch has made for her Tanztheater Wuppertal since the mid '90s that focus on a particular city or country. The prevailing vision, in this case, is of a friendly and relaxed culture. No political or religious tensions intrude. The opening sets the tone. "That's me in the hammam!" exults Fernando Suels Mendoza, pointing at a prone man being whapped by a white towel. In the background, water begins seeping into a declivity in the dark stage floor. In this bathhouse, women stand over men, whipping the air above them with their long hair. Later, some performers slowly, ritualistically, dip cloth bags into basins and squeeze foam onto recumbent "clients."
Bausch's earlier works showed a dark, often punitive side of male-female relations. There are few disturbing images of any kind in Nefés, unless you count men lounging on chairs and women crawling up to them on all fours to have their heads absentmindedly stroked. Or the passage in which women are veiled by their own hair, and men part the hair to kiss them. City traffic seems to be the main hazard; gravel-voiced Nazareth Panadero runs back and forth shrieking in front of a film of hurtling cars and buses. Pleasure is a priority. Melanie Maurin and Shantala Shivalingappa sit on the floor, gleefully dipping pastries into a honey pot and licking the drops from their hands.
Water images permeate the piece. Panadero is trying to do her laundry when Daphnis Kokkinos snuggles up to her from behind. Andrey Berezin and Pascal Merighi bear Shivalingappa, erect as a goddess statue in a procession; a pole on her head supports two plastic bags of water. Rainer Behr dances in a sudden rainstorm that pours into the pool. In semi-darkness, two women shine flashlights into the water and bend to pick up small objectsmaybe shellfish. In one enthralling duet, the beautiful Shivalingappa dances, and Merighi keeps placing a glass in one of her constantly swimming, spiraling hands and removing it before it can fall. In the first of many solos that stud Nefés, Na Young Kim dances as if some sweet fluid were snaking around her limbs and torso, making her white silk dress swirl around her ankles.
Bausch's wonderfully versatile performers used to talk more and dance less. Nefésalong with late-'90s pieces like Masurca Fogo, Der Fensterputzer, and Danzon, and the 2002 For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrowis studded with solos. These seem to be built on a common vocabulary, with each dancer creating his or her variation on a theme. The choreography is almost always fluidbodies twisting, maybe tumbling to the floor, arms slipping in and out of knotsbut Maurin's creamy voluptuousness is different from Ditta Miranda Jasjfi's delicate precision, Shivalingappa's Bharata Natyaminfused steps, and Behr's velvety athleticism. There must be at least 14 solos, and I remember wondering with some dismay if all 20 tremendously interesting performers were going to dance alone before the evening ended.
As always, however, Bausch structures her collage sagely, welding events to atmospheric music (in this case an eclectic, not always potent mix of pop and indigenous Turkish songs) and counting on her excellent lighting director, Fernando Jacon, to shape the atmosphere. Whether Nefés is Bausch-lite or simply Bausch mellowing, watching it is like being invited to peruse a scrapbook of intriguing mementos.