When Pina Bausch first brought her troupe to New York, in 1984, I was upstate at a summer workshop with the Limón Dance Company, studying with modern-dance giants. But word was out: Even without email or camera phones, we all knew we were missing the dance event of the decade.
Two of the four works on offer that summer are playing at the BAM opera house now. Bausch was raised in Solingen, Germany, where she spent hours in the hotel and restaurant her parents ran. Her life partner, Rolf Borzik, designed a crisp, contained space for her 1978 Café Müller, a neutral dining room full of black tables and chairs. Outside big double doors at the back it is night, or perhaps just before dawn; the lights do not exactly come up; rather, your eyes adjust to the dark. A pair of barefoot sleepwalkers (Helena Pikon and Azusa Seyama on opening night) and a young man in a sharp jacket (Pau Aran Gimeno) slowly enter the space, the guy hastily clearing furniture out of the way of Seyama. A second man (Scott Jennings), also barefoot, in shirtsleeves, crosses her path, and a third (Michael Strecker), in a double-breasted jacket, tries unsuccessfully to get Jennings to carry her. The ensuing sequence, in which Jennings lets Seyama hit the floor at least seventeen times, is a marvel of tragicomedy; Seyama quickly learns how to engineer her own abandonment, while Jennings stands there, barely participating, as the packed house erupts in nervous laughter.
Meanwhile a lady in a blue dress, a coat, and red pumps (Nazareth Panadero) anxiously hovers around the cluttered room. Could she be an employee, eager to set up for breakfast? Or a hungover guest, looking for someone she’s lost? She and Jennings keep meeting and kissing, when he’s not busy with Seyama, the two of them slamming each other into the walls. Arias from Henry Purcell’s seventeenth-century Dido and Aeneas haunt these mysterious interactions. Are they indeed sleepwalkers, or are they ghosts? Are they family, or a bunch of co-workers? Two of the original performers, Bausch herself and Borzik, have died, he in 1980 and she in 2009. Wim Wenders’s 2011 Pina may be as close as you’ll get to figuring out an answer, since the BAM run is sold out; you can stand by for cancellations.
Intermission, lasting nearly half an hour, is a show in itself, as some twenty black-clad stagehands strike the sturdy café set and scatter the stage floor with truckloads of dirt in preparation for one of Bausch’s earliest major works, her 1975 Rite of Spring, to the iconic Stravinsky score. In contrast to Café Müller, which juxtaposes occasional bursts of musicality and graceful steps with brutal or hapless gestures, this Rite is a powerful pure-dance work for some 32 performers, the men in black trousers, the women in sheer champagne-colored shifts. Although just one of them (Tsai-Chin Yu on Thursday) is marked for a violent end, the entire group seems ready to fertilize the earth and then die, revving itself up for the climax.
If you can’t get a ticket to see Pina, you might consider checking out Antonio Ramos & the Gangbangers, whose Almodóvar Dystopia has set up shop at Dixon Place through the end of the month. The Spanish filmmaker used a scene from Bausch’s 1998 Masurca Fogo in his 2002 Talk to Her. Ramos, a Puerto Rican dancer-choreographer with no inhibitions and a clutch of handsome colleagues game to play a whole evening naked, takes inspiration from Almodóvar: A program note thanks him “for showing us the intrinsic essence of being human is messy and fun.”
But there the resemblance ends. Ramos’s Dystopia is a rambling, underdeveloped foray into…oh, who knows? It includes much talking in Spanish (only occasionally graced with subtitles, which even my rudimentary comprehension of the language let me understand were less than accurate), a lot of dancing to salsa beats, and other random movement. Alex Romania provides overlapping multi-channel video and the occasional live feed; both he and sound designer Admanda Kobilka (a/k/a snoggybox) also perform nude.
The gloriously talented costumer Claire Fleury provides fuchsia-colored garments that cover bits of the artists’ bodies, but not the naughty ones. Huge multicolored wigs proliferate. Six dancers, three men and three women, cooperate with Ramos in delivering an entire room’s worth of furniture and props (including an ironing board, a poster of Judy Garland, a clothing steamer, and an inflatable palm tree) from his putative womb, a scene that takes place behind a green curtain, in an offstage space used by turns as a dressing room, a TV studio, and a maternity ward. This interlude, accompanied by a great deal of screaming, culminates in the expulsion of an enormous green placenta. After the traumatic birth, the cast builds a vanity table and genuflects before the image of Judy. Two dancers duet with clothespins clipped to their fingernails.
The performers penetrate the audience, offering “artis-anal” chocolates made in molds derived from the choreographer’s asshole. Veteran dancer Luke Miller, his buzz-cut hair dyed a Trumpian shade of orange, orders us to remove and display our shoes. Romania’s camera plays proctologist to Ramos, delivering unusual close-ups of a place where the sun don’t shine.
My companion on opening night, a gay man, sat stony-faced through the show’s 75 minutes and then announced that it might have worked as a short Laugh-In skit. Another gay friend, though, was delighted and swore he’d return to see it again. I can’t say I wasn’t warned; press materials announce an “asstravaganza…an outrageous political statement about the body-negative and repressed nature of the world we live in.” It’s certainly that, but finally not very interesting. I sat openmouthed for the first half hour, fascinated by the diversity of penises on display. But then the work went limp, structurally speaking; dramaturge David Drake should take another shot at tightening it up.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Avenue
Through September 24
Antonio Ramos & the Gangbangers: ‘Almodóvar Dystopia’
161A Chrystie Street
Through September 30