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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 416-418

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Performance Review


Nelken. By Pina Bausch. Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, California. 21 October 1999.

IMAGE LINK= Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal productions are noted for their stunning, sometimes bizarre imagery, their collage-like sequences, and their pastiche of ritual, dance, text, music, and theatre. Bausch eschews linear story lines, working through juxtaposition and contrast to convey meaning. Much of her work addresses the issue of power in oppressive social structures, the violence between men and women, and the desperate search for love. Receiving its West Coast premiere at UCLA's Royce Hall, her latest work to tour the United States, Nelken ("Carnations"), explores with compassion, darkness, and humor the relationship between individuals, and between individuals and the state.

At the opening of the piece, the stage was filled with thousands of pink and white (artificial) carnations, which served as both a backdrop to the [End Page 416] performance and an emblem of playful innocence. Dancers entered in evening attire carrying chairs and sat in the midst of the carnations in a sort of bucolic bliss, then walked offstage, chairs in tow. Several male dancers dressed in loose-fitting frocks bounded gleefully through the carnations on all fours. This bunny heaven, however, turned ominous as officials holding leashed German shepherds invaded the perimeter of the stage. The dogs barked viciously yet humorously in counterpoint to the jazzy tune by King Oliver, "West End Blues." One official chased the frolickers and caught a dancer, demanding, "Passport, please." After inspection, he said, "You may continue to hop." While the humor undercut the foreboding atmosphere, in Bausch's world, freedom and play are never far from the specter of state control. Though it would be misleading to read too literal a political interpretation of Bausch's works, Nelken was first created in 1982, before the fall of the Berlin wall, and captures the oppressive atmosphere of the authoritarian state.

This latent tyranny also surfaced in the midst of game-playing. During a game of "Red Light/Green Light," longtime Bausch performer Jan Minarik exerted obsessive control over the movements of the other dancers, accusing them of cheating and sending them to the back of the line when they were "caught" moving. The dancers argued, but eventually obeyed. Yet, unlike the obeisance paid to officials of the state, here the player-dancers eventually overpowered Minarik, forcing him to play the game and subjecting him to their commands. In the social world, there is a possibility of resistance.

Nelken also plays with expectations between audience and performers. One dancer, Dominique Mercy, presented classical ballet steps and then challenged the audience, "You want to see more?" He executed a series of chaînés, then grands jetés almost angrily, as if under compulsion, continuing to ask the audience, "You want to see more . . . ?" This may be an inside joke, a response to early criticism that Bausch's unconventional choreography wasn't really "dance." Yet the possibility of play and resistance was also evident, with one dancer complaining, "This is a complete waste of time! You're yawning already and my feet are sore." In another instance, four male dancers lined up, climbed on a table one at a time, and fell flat onto the table without breaking their fall as a female performer seated in a chair watched, horrified. After each round, the men aggressively pushed the table closer to her, while she backed away in [End Page 417] her chair until they were inches from her and she could back up no further--underscoring the antagonism between performer and observer.

But the tyranny implicit in the performance event worked both ways. The dancers, too, forced the audience to perform their bidding, escorting audience members out of the auditorium at one moment and calling on them to stand and mime the semaphore-like gestures of a dancer at another. Nelken ended with the audience participating in this semaphore, which turned out to be an elaborate embrace, a rather tender moment that somehow resisted sentimentality. Indeed, interspersed throughout Nelken is a strain of compassion coupled with a general...


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