Perhaps I should always take in a Pina Bausch piece with someone who’s never seen her work before. My companion’s reactions of surprise or pleasure to For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow stoked my own. I slide into my seat at BAM (which has hosted Tanztheater Wuppertal’s New York visits since 1984), knowing I’ll see a collage of riffs on familiar Bauschian themes. The marvelous performers, who generate the material at her instigation and under her direction, will play fanciful, sometimes cruel games; taunt one another; flirt with us; and smirk as if they know some secret we don’t. Women will strut in high heels. Actions will be reiterated until they become surreal.
Bausch’s usual mix of irony, wit, pathos, and brutality has a tender edge in this post–9-11 work. In an earlier opus, three men forced a woman to drink water and turned her into a fountain for their use. Here’s one of For the Children‘s water games: Rainer Behr repeatedly dances Helena Pikon into a back bend and spits a jet of water into her outstretched hand; upright again, she drinks it. Like several of Bausch’s recent works, this one projects no powerful unifying theme or the sense of place that made, say, Kontakthof, Bluebeard, or Arien so memorable. The work builds in the second half mainly through reprises and because the white walls of Peter Pabst’s onstage room begin to dance into new configurations.
For the Children is a postmodern vaudeville whose intermixed, overlapping acts make adult sense of childhood and adolescent games, cravings, and attitudes. Over and over, tiny Ditta Miranda Jasjfi steps into Pascal Merighi’s gently proffered hands to be carried; later, pulled firmly along by Andrej Berezin, she keeps plunking herself stubbornly down. Water, fire, lipstick, and a jump rope–turned-catapult are featured toys. Women defiantly comb their hair “wrong”—with stiletto heels or the business ends of push brooms. In the opening “I dare you” episode, Fernando Suels and Jorge Puerta Armenta sit side by side on a table, staring straight ahead. Suels tilts slowly sideways; Armenta catches him by the ankle an instant before his head would hit the floor. Awkward courting is performed with grown-up slyness. Nazareth Panadero, gravel-voiced and lipsticked, gives a disgusted sneer when Dominique Mercy gravely asks if she loves him. They bargain “love” down to a half-minute hug.
Like Die Fensterputzer, Masurca Fogo, and Danzon (all made in the ’90s), For the Children is studded with solos (the men’s, anyway) that use traces of a common vocabulary—bodies arching and lashing fluidly—whether the dancing seems desperate, as it does in Mercy’s superb performance; or hints at B-boying, as it does when Behr dances (dynamite!); or contains small, around-the-face gestures, as in a solo by sexy Melanie Maurin.
Plus ça change, Pina . . . But you know what? I’d never stay home when a Bausch work comes to town.
The New York City Ballet’s gala, a harbinger of the post-Nutcracker winter season, began with the U.S. premiere of Peter Martins’s Octet. I thought of something Jerome Robbins once said about Balanchine: He always created an onstage society that perfectly captured the flavor or period of a ballet’s music. Martins has heard the classical symmetry, balance, and buoyancy in Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, but rarely its restless Romantic vocabulary. The opening is vivid: Four men (leading male Benjamin Millepied camouflaged among them) in pinkish-red unitards by Holly Hynes crisscross the stage one by one, as if catching private gusts of wind. Their princess, Ashley Bouder—bold, fluent, and openhearted—matches them in sautés, assemblés, and vaulting turns.
The muted-green team of guys enters in exactly the same way, even copying the later two-man crossings. Over the course of the ballet—in addition to what seems a very long adagio for Darci Kistler, her lyrical fragility lovingly folded and unfolded by Stephen Hanna—Martins plays exhaustive games with symmetry. Red and green men face off in canon. Kistler leads three reds, Bouder three greens. Reds and greens alternate in a Christmassy line. Welcome irregularities: Antonio Carmena and Sean Suozzi trespass a couple of times on a lively Bouder-Millepied duet. Red Aaron Severini does his thing behind peas-in-a-pod greens Seth Orza, Jonathan Stafford, and Andrew Veyette. Octet‘s clean good looks, coupled with its coolly sporty contemporary manners, don’t reveal much about Mendelssohn’s world.
The four ballets, one by each of NYCB’s principal choreographers, offered some stunning performances. Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto make the curious twinings and low cantilevered lifts of Christopher Wheeldon’s 2003 Liturgy reveal the haunted ritualism in Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for Violin, Strings, and Percussion. Maria Kowroski and Philip Neal display a new warmth and ease in I’m Old-Fashioned, Jerome Robbins’s clever, crowd-pleasing 1983 tribute to Fred Astaire; Sébastien Marcovici and Jenifer Ringer are suavely playful together in the same ballet. The evening’s smash debut was by Sofiane Sylve in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, partnered by Charles Askegard. Sylve’s charming serenity and creamy amplitude of gesture (her legs appear to begin at her waist) are givens, but who knew she could be a dragonfly, her stepping onto pointe like a needle piercing silk?