Masterful dance of its time: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Nelken

National Theater, Taipei
March 11, 2018

David Mead

However much theatres try to promote new contemporary approaches to choreography or staging, it’s in some ways rather amusing that it’s still the old big names that pack them in best. One is Pina Bausch. Despite many of her works now being around four decades old, and apparently barely changed in any way (which is not even close to true for any classical ballet ‘classic’, and indeed most full-length ballets, forty years after the premiere), they continue to attract large audiences.

Set in a sea of thousands of carnations (‘nelken’ in German), Nelken is about love, loving and being loved. Like so much of her work, it’s an exploration of human relationships and the everyday random nature of life, everlasting themes that, in part, account for much of its continued success.

Carnations have traditionally been the flowers given to mothers. Here, they get trampled underfoot in all the action, perhaps just as symbolic, although Bausch’s message seems to be that love survives whatever is thrown in its way.

Nelken is Bausch’s usual mix of the poetic, the raw and unsettling and the decidedly bizarre. It flits around with little apparent structure, and like a dream we are left to try and interpret it for ourselves.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in NelkenPhoto Jochen Viehoff
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Nelken
Photo Jochen Viehoff

It starts gently with moments of intimacy amid the blooms. A man translates George Gershiwn’s The Man I Love into sign language, the song recurring several times later. But it’s not long before dark-suited men with Alsatians appear. There are passport inspections, the dancers being ordered to act in humiliating ways before being allowed to continue. The atmosphere is one of repression. Remember that Nelken was made five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bausch would have been all too familiar with such occurrences. The Wall may have gone, and indeed, I suspect is not remembered let alone understood by many of today’s audiences, but there are, or should be, enough other references for the scene to still resonate.

There’s more oppression explored in other relationships: child and parent, wife and husband, even performers and audience. Elsewhere a topless dancer holds an accordion, a couple pour soil on their heads, a woman peels potatoes, another woman is force-fed, men face-dive into diced onions, others leap off scaffolding into walls of cardboard boxes, and there’s more slapping and more making like animals. Like the perfect carpet of flowers patrolled by guards and dogs, most things are double edged.

It’s not always comfortable watching. Indeed, it is very noticeable that violence and oppression is almost always meted out by men, usually towards women, or as here, men humiliatingly dressed as women. If any of it was ever funny, it’s not remotely so today. Nelken is very much a work of its time, or maybe even after its time.

It doesn’t even surprise any more. Neither does Bausch’s eclectic mix of music. It may be heresy to criticise her but there are times when Nelken drags and you sit there praying for the next interesting thing to come along.

There are still moments that make you sit up though, especially her almost militaristic movement phrases that repeat and repeat as the cast sit on chairs or snake their way across the stage. The only genuinely funny part of the show comes when a game of ‘un, deux, trois, soleil’, you may know it better as ‘grandmother’s skirt’ descends into acrimony and argument. Anyone who has played this with adults will know how desperately serious they take it and how desperately close to the truth the scene is.

Tanztheater Wuppertal has had a serious injection of new dancers in recent years and they have brought a much-needed freshness and energy to the company that is good to see. Having said that, some of the detail and some of the understanding of the meaning and deep intent that the original cast may have gone with them, but that happens with most dance.

Bausch was a master but she was of her time. Since her passing, now six years ago, it has sometimes seemed as if Tanztheater Wuppertal has been stuck in aspic. Given the suddenness of what happened, it’s understandable that the company’s leaders wanted to take their time, but it’s equally a company desperately in need of the excitement and fresh breath that comes with good new work. Thankfully, it is likely to finally get that later this year with two new whole evening pieces by Dimitris Papaioannou and Alan Lucien Øyen. No doubt they will be compared disapprovingly. “It’s not Bausch.” I can hear it now. But it’s not meant to be, and it mustn’t be. Dance has moved on, the world has moved on, and the company needs to as well. Thankfully, the journey is about to begin.