Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Nelken

Sadler’s Wells, London
February 14, 2024

Pina Bausch’s tanztheater has not only attained canonical status for the magnitude of its affect, but also continues to retain that power despite her death in 2009. Nelken (Carnations) has long been regarded as one of her hallmark creations from the 1980s, and this was the first time that it has been seen in the UK since her passing.

Today’s Tanztheater Wuppertal consistently demonstrates that it is committed to the expressive investigations that Bausch probed in her lifetime. As a collective, its performers gracefully embody the same grace and beauty of motion that her choreography created.

As the name suggests, carnations are at the heart of Bausch’s playful, yet twisted piece. Nelken opens with a field of eight thousand pink blooms, a charming foreground that stirs feelings of anticipation, no less exaggerated by the peculiar fact that four Alsatian hounds will also be onstage. George Gershwin’s infamous, ‘The Man I Love’, gracefully signed by Reginald Lefebvre, only underscores the careening balance between vulnerability and and tragedy that surround the word ‘love’.

Luciény Kaabral with Andrey Berezin and Alexander López Guerra in Nelken
Photo Oliver Look

Peter Pabst, long time designer for Tanztheater Wuppertal, graciously fills the carnation field with satin evening gowns in pastel hues and boxy suits that appropriately pay homage to the 1980’s Germany Bausch created Nelken in. The aesthetic clash between flora, flowing satin, and the stiff greys of retro suits create a triage of texture that empowers the movement. In combination, the visual effect is nothing short of seismic.

Yet, perhaps the most poignant aspect of all, is that the power of tanztheater remains and continues to thrive through the inventiveness of the company. Rehearsal directors Silva Farias Heredia and Eddie Martinez were also dancers under Pina, and undoubtedly lend a great deal of experience and contemplation to this restaging of a tanztheater classic.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Nelken
Photo Uwe Stratmann

The dancers deftly navigate between playful passages that are reminiscent of a cake with too much sugar. At time coquettish, often humorous, their dances border on grotesque, as if begging the audience to finally acknowledge that the overwhelming sweetness can quickly turn into horror and discomfort at the whim of another appearance, a changed melody, a dog’s bark. Humour begets jeering, that morphs into disdain and sometimes, shame.

The carnations whither underfoot as the dance continues. So too, do the dancers’ polished facades: sweat drips, hair begins to fly loose. Only the costumes remain the same as each dancer undergoes moments of frenzy, pain, and apprehension.

Nelken is so impressive, also, because of how inconsiderate it is to the carnations. Props abound and crush the carnations remaining, without hesitation. The microphone plays a leading role: amplifying shrieks of grief, elevated heart rates and the thumping rhythms of footsteps. In an attempt to make audible the universal sounds of the human system, the microphone leads the dancers across the stage, trampling through the pink surface that increasingly finds itself in a poor state. Tables, too, become a playground for exploration: above, below, beside, and, being carried off stage, their weight overpowers any attempt by the dancers to consider the delicate posture of the flowers underfoot.

Letizia Galloni in Nelken
Photo Paul Andermann

The delicacy of the carnation field is akin to that delicate balance between grotesque humour and discomfort that pervades the piece. Intermittently, Nelken refers to the bureaucracy that regaled in 1980’s East Germany and the withering freedoms that resulted. Cold demands for passport checks, defiant crackdowns on danced joy, and orders to dress are a stark reminder that the freedom embodied by tanztheater is one that must be constantly defended and protected.

Bizarrely, in 2024, that sense that beauty can be trampled and destroyed, at any moment’s notice, feels too tangible. I consistently wished for Nelken to be less effective in generating chuckles that were swiftly punctuated by cruelty. The dance so precisely addresses the precarity of play, joy, and comfort. Bausch’s choreography questions the delineation between beauty and ruin, bravely putting forth the proposition that the division is irrelevant. She proposes that, perhaps, we should acknowledge that the two forces perpetually coexist. The choreography cleverly does so, and the powerful performance of each dancer, and their absolute vulnerability and honesty onstage, makes even more moving her questions on love, tenderness, and tragedy.