A woman holds out a carrot in front of herself with one hand and with the other, hits her behind with a coat hanger. She’s harassing herself into taking a step, having a bite. Such is the pervasive display of self-inducement I see being played out again and again in Pina Bausch’s Vollmond. If it is not expression, it is action that is instrumental to expression – acting in the service of an image, a motif. Often a physical conundrum is both created and solved by the same person. They embody a paradox, and it takes effort but seems natural, as if this is how this person has adapted. This is how this person does it. The carrot and the hanger epitomises the way Bausch captures cyclical behaviours, psychologies and manners: what we do, we do unto ourselves. In Vollmond, Bausch’s dancers have a propensity towards many things, leaning towards the brooding, impressionable and fantastical end of the dream pool – they are caring, tricksy, depressed, hysterical, nonchalant, attention-seeking, vivacious creatures. They have needs. We all have needs.
There is a tease between the face-value role-play that unfolds within each vignette and the annals running beneath these enactments: the indelible and lovely familiarity/family-ness of the company. One scene after another slinks onto stage. Sometimes an entrance extinguishes the preceding scene, at other times two or three vignettes coexist harmoniously or cross-fade seamlessly. The piece comes in waves. It cascades and sloshes, quite literally – a river of water stretches across the breadth of the upstage, crowned by a great cavernous rock that sits across the water. Vollmood. Full Moon. This piece is hormonal. Things float in and out of sight in a land/waterscape of appearances, disappearances and reappearances. I begin keeping track of it chronologically but the performance is lengthy (two hours and twenty minutes) and gradually induces a radial reading. Bausch’s choreography is full of repetition and variation, with ideas reoccurring and reincarnated in different guises, energies and bodies. Vollmond laps over me like a tide and through its persistence, things transform, and impressions sediment.
Dancing and demanding come in equal measure. The paradox of the designed capriciousness of the characters is particularly savoury to me. Control, duress, servility, play, infantalisation, sexualisation and de-sexualisation – these are some other things I see. They go down well: there were titters and chuckles of recognition. It is not all bad, human folly. It is actually very moving seeing it framed on a stage in all its ridiculousness. The absurd functionality of a man serving as a human chair… I suppose it works… The eschewed logic of going to a hand to be caressed, to put one’s body in the way of a hand to elicit tactile attention, was surprisingly arresting. At first I thought this act exuded neediness and found it unattractive, but then I wondered whether it was, in fact, admirable: this character was seeking what she needed/wanted. She was making it happen – he was oblidging her. This was a winning situation. Then I recalled this TED talk by Esther Perel on desire, which touches on desperation – very different to, yet sometimes mistaken for, desire – and thought better of it. Who was that poet who called love a sickness? Obliging kissers and kisses, how hideous. One woman threatened to peck-kiss a man into oblivion. Another faces a man and challenges him to undo her bra, insisting each time he succeeds that he must do it quicker. By the third time, winking at the audience, she claims it has become imperative that he achieves this feat in three seconds flat. Innocent, believing and up for it, he passes the test. Another man comes on stage, far smaller in stature, and makes a real meal of the same action on the first attempt. It is farcical, but it equals humiliation.
I feel the subtle difference between danced actions that speak to me from somewhere guttural, and those that don’t. Most of them are really chatty. I am astounded by what all this movement is telling me – how short a phrase may be, yet how complex what’s been said can be. Invariably, meanings that arise certainly are not singular, though at first glance, I thought I perceived emotions essentialised, reduced, potentised into simplicity. Not so. Or rather, do my own attitudes towards these fervent emotional outings waiver while what is portrayed stands firm? It is this grappling with understanding, toppling between knowing and not knowing, that holds my interest.
The music, from Latin to electronic to sort of lounge jazz, was met with a baseline physical exuberance. Movement was bountiful, erotic and wantonly expressive. How un-British. How is it that I am still thinking this thought? They’re doing things that have been embarrassing in my book until fairly recently. Like, err, touching their own torsos – especially the women. The way they dance with their hair. It reminds me of the way I felt seeing American dancers move when I went to CalArts for a semester: working the whole look, hair tip to little toe, an indiscreet dose of, ‘Here I am’ directly addressed to the audience. Pah, English wallflowers. Anyway, I’m getting over it. I dig this flamboyance. In these instances where I think I detect jazz or American ‘modern dance’, I have to pinch myself (I deserve a slap). This is Pina Bausch; this is the original. And yet this piece was made quite recently, merely seven years ago. Raimund Hoghe, dramatic advisor to Pina Bausch between 1980 and 1990, was out of the picture by this time. Bausch no longer made the steps herself. So to bring it back to basics, what about the dance vocabulary? I sensed a certain degree of blanket-ness about the dancing. I could not fault the dancers and the conviction with which they executed the material, but it seemed like the nature of the material was moderated by Bausch’s existing style. Mostly when the dancers soloed, I did not see them slice through the material individually. Instead, it was as if the myth of Bausch’s material was put on a pedestal, lightweight yet oversaturated compared to earlier work. But it was not all made of straw.
Indeed, there was plenty of meat to chew on. I found the couple-vignettes and group scenes most compelling: men folding into the laps of women, a woman charging at a man on the shoulders of another man who brandishes a handbag ferociously. Is she the boss or a parasite? Is the man a collaborator or a pawn? At first, an interaction appears to be one thing but on second thoughts might be something quite different. Some of the solos where the dancers speak are the most penetrating. A woman in a black floor-length dress covers herself in citrus juice saying in a small, woe-begotten voice, “I am sour, I am sour. Yes, I am sour…”, before divulging, “…I wait and I wait and I wait [then louder, wailing] AND I WAIT AND I WAIT AND I WAIT AND I WAIT! [Soft again] And then I cry and I cry and I cry. Yes, I cry [louder] AND I CRY AND I CRY AND I CRY!” Aye aye aye, the infant in the grown-up. The howl of a lady left on the shelf? I found this quite devastating. But then one of my greatest fears before I was ten was that I wouldn’t find a husband.
Infantalisation happens to both the men and women. There is a strong pattern of women taking centre stage and men being more of a foil. I think about chivalry, and whether I like the fact that my father is usually the first to offer the wine at a table of women. He is outnumbered 6:1 in my family. Is ‘the world’ being played out on stage? Or is what is happening on stage a throwback to a world gone-by? I am a woman. I lift. I open doors. I host. These are strong, strong men and women I see before me. And yet, it’s only the men who do the carrying – angelic men, man servants. Is this servility reciprocated? I think not. These women bring the imperiousness and audacity of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to mind.
“Over and over and over!”, a woman yells as she runs through the air on her side. Burning milk. Another twang of empathy – my hair has smelt of smoke all day since I let the rice burn this morning. A woman swoops through the river hanging on to a stick held horizontally between two men either side: a fancy of flight. How close is this to the people on the street? Is this meant to be escapism? I suppose the criteria for escapism is ‘otherness’ and can be better or worse than reality. Again, I find myself mulling over Perel’s TED stik on eroticism and unpolitical correctness in the bedroom. The water-fight at the end of the piece is joyous. Everybody joins in, everyone has a bucket; the separation of the sexes at last abates.
Vollmond will be performed again on Monday 25 February at 7.30pm at Sadler's Wells. This show is sold out.
Director and Choreographer: Pina Bausch
Set Design and Video: Peter Pabst
Costume Design: Marion Cito
Musical Collaboration: Matthias Burket, Andreas Eisenschneider
Collaboration: Marion Cito, Daphnis Kokkinos, Dominique Mercy, Robert Sturm
Rehearsal Directors: Daphnis Kokkinos, Dominique Mercy, Robert Sturm
Performers: Pablo Aran Gimeno, Rainer Behr, Silvia Farias Heredia, Ditta Miranda Jasjfi, Dominique Mercy, Scott Jennings, Nazareth Panadero, Helena Pikon, Jorge Puerta Armenta, Azusa Seyama, Julie Anne Stanzak, Michael Strecker, Fernando Suels Mendoza
Music: Amon Tobin, Alexander Balanescu mit dem Balanescu Quartett, Cat Power, Carl Craig, Jun Miyake, Leftfield, Magyar Posse, Nenad Jeli, René Aubry, Tom Waits
Technical Director: Manfred Marczewski
Lighting Director: Fernando Jacon
Lighting Assistants: Peter Bellinghausen, Kerstin Hardt (as guests)
Sound: Andreas Eisenschneider
Premiere May 2006, Opera House Wuppertal