Once upon a time, Pina Bausch made grim works. Members of her Tanztheater Wuppertal came onstage for their curtain call looking as if they’d almost died for you. Some New Yorkers were distressed by her works’ sadomasochistic edge and the paucity of “real dancing,” but more people found them deeply truthful. And there was no denying Bausch’s imaginativeness, wit, or theatricality—a stage flooded with water (Arien, 1979), a wall that filled the proscenium arch crashing into rubble (Palermo Palermo, 1989).
Beginning with Danzon (1995), a shift occurred in the tone of her postmodern spectacles, although not in their overall structuring. From countries where her company toured, she picked up images, customs, and city-streets activities and mixed them into her usual vivid collages to tint her usual concerns: how people feel, how they show their feelings, and how they behave to others. Dancing for its own sake also returned to her later pieces; almost every company member gets a solo. Developed by her tremendous performers out of instructions she provides, these tend to be similar—fluid, sensuous, self-preoccupied.
As Bausch’s 2007 Bamboo Blues begins at BAM, Silvia Farias Heredia, wearing a long, full-skirted, pink-silk evening gown, dances in designer Peter Pabst’s white kingdom, created by floor-to-ceiling lengths of sheer white fabric draped over rods, like extreme saris drying in the wind. Offstage fans make them billow, the dancer lashes her long hair, and her dress swirls around her as she folds and unfolds her body and arms, as if she’s bathing in long-desired rain.
Bausch’s interest in India was furthered by her friendship with the late, groundbreaking Indian choreographer Chandralekha, and that country is the source for much of Bamboo Blues‘ imagery and music (24 selections, ranging from Alice Coltrane and Michael Gordon to Anoushka Shankar and the Bombay Dub Orchestra). The women all wear gowns like Heredia’s, but when they first cluster to lounge and stare at us, their secretive, enticing smiles conjure celestial concubines.
Some of the brief episodes evoke religious customs in skewed ways. Two women kneel before a seated man, holding cigarette lighters under his feet; he’s as unperturbed as a statue. Men balance branches on Jorge Puerta Armenta’s shoulders, head, and arms as he walks calmly and steadily along. In one beautiful passage, two men carry a woman across the stage; first, she’s curled up, then the man walking backward pulls on her feet, and, suddenly, she’s horizontal. Repeated several times, the image loses the implication of a bier; you see only silky expanding and contracting, akin to the way people fold white fabric in another section of the work.
Fabric—entangling, sliding over—is a key element. In one beguiling passage, paired dancers in perfect unison parade along a diagonal, one at a time, intricately folding white cloth into a garment—short and complex for some, longer and more loosely draped for others. It’s like watching someone make origami.
Bamboo Blues also reiterates familiar Bausch tropes: people talking to front-row spectators, adoring or brutalizing themselves or each other, donning drag, acting in bizarre skits. Clémentine Deluy submerges her face in a bucket of water; when someone takes it away, she gets another bucket and does it again. After Tsai-chin Yu performs a particularly beautiful solo, Damiano Ottavio Bigi makes her run with him, step onto a chair, and dive off so he can catch her. Over and over. For his fascinating solo, lithe Pablo Aran Gimeno wears a long, flowered dress. In one funny bit, Franko Schmidt takes transatlantic orders for Pizza Pronto.
Despite the similarities that Bausch’s compositional processes engender in the solos, some of the 18 brave and versatile dancers stand out as individuals in theirs: Eddie Martinez, Kenji Takagi, Rainer Behr—for his bravado and fierce dynamics—and Shantala Shivalingappa for her delicate precision and the flowering hand gestures that punctuate her supple steps.
The post-intermission half of Bamboo Blues begins with a projected close-up from a Bollywood film, and includes not only more white drapes and a transparent curtain that is pulled repeatedly across and back, but a video showing three costumed and masked dancer-acrobats in the Chhau style of West Bengal and another video that, at the end, locates us in a car or train, passing through a lush green landscape.
As always with Bausch, the many “acts” in her vaudeville—the snapshots, so to speak, from her album—sometimes connect thematically, but rarely have an impact on one another. Erotic play and violence are formalized; performers enter, do something, and leave. Certain episodes in the first half are recapitulated in the second, as if to affirm a kind of continuity. Bamboo Blues may not be major Bausch, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
At villagevoice.com/dance, read Deborah Jowitt on Benjamin Millepied and David Gordon