Photograph by Stephanie Berger courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music

Photograph by Stephanie Berger courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music


By. Kristen Hedberg

Pina Bausch’s Café Müller (1978) and The Rite of Spring (1975)

Viewed on Tuesday, September 19th 2017 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)

I can barely enter the Brooklyn Academy of Music without knocking into another body. BAM is bustling. Tickets are long sold out. A line stretches out the door for entry as the dancers stretch backstage. Ticket holders inside sip their drinks, chittering excitedly. We are about to peer into history.

Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal made its first appearance at BAM in 1984. Bausch’s troupe broke new ground at BAM- her choreographic genius and holistic intuition pierced the hearts of her audiences. Bausch immediately developed a loyal group of BAM followers who flock to each of her subsequent performances, totaling thirteen.

Fast forward to 2017: audiences old and new swarm. Pre-show drinks are drained, and every seat in the house brims with anticipation. We are desperate to escape the year’s calamities, just for a few hours. Natural disasters, political chaos, and social tensions have divided America into deeper rifts than ever. But the BAM audience thrives, as does Tanztheater Wuppertal. Despite Bausch’s sudden death in 2009, the company perseveres. Company dancers hailing from all generations remain loyal and embedded in Bausch’s work, company dancers’ ages ranging from twenties to sixties. For two generous hours, every soul inside the BAM theater shared common ground.

BAM’s 2017 Next Wave Festival graces us with two of Bausch’s repertories from the 1970’s: Café Müller and The Rite of Spring. Ironically alluding to 2017’s tensions, both of Bausch’s dances expose macabre, yet inevitable, realities of life. These include sacrifice, war, community, gruesome relationships, and death.

Café Müller appears subdued. The stage morphs into a luminous café setting complete with tables, chairs, door, and a window. This elaborate café initially seems chaotic and busier than the six dancers and Purcell’s score combined. Half of the dance is in silence. More than half of the dance utilizes pedestrian movements: pacing, walking, hugging, kissing, gesturing. The audience’s eye is underwhelmed. Watching each character’s action is not arduous. Each movement is clear and defined.

While Café Müller initially appears subdued, the dance screams. The dancers’ clarity remains as the dance’s complexity increases. Simple walking makes way for scurrying. Chairs from tables are tossed askew, this mayhem correlating with the frenzied performers. The dancers map the space through pacing and repetitive tics. Relationships in turmoil begin to reveal themselves through solos, duets, and trios.

A female soloist (The first Sleepwalker, Pina’s original role) dressed in a long, white gown and bare feet commands the upstage right corner. She is the first body we see in Café Müller. Her eyes are closed. She dances with a floating, lyrical quality in contrast to the other five dancers: two women and three men. Her grace and suppleness indicate purity. She is distinctly separated from the rest of the group, as if she is unattainable and lost. She ventures center stage for brief moments; at each transition she makes, I lean forward with fascination. I remain curious and undistracted as I follow this first Sleepwalker. Briefly my attention turns to the click-clacks of a high-heeled female, and the loud crashes of chairs tossed aside.

The audience, already on their seats’ edge, also jerks to attention at a particularly ardent man and woman. The couple violently slams each other against the stage right wall, only moments after the female was frantically lifted, dropped, and embraced by her partner. Café Müller’s tension never egresses. As a true dance theater piece, the six characters required no words to expose their turmoil. Looking on, an audience member near me murmurs, “Simple…but with so much.”

The Rite of Spring endures. Stravinsky’s timeless score has been choreographed on Disney animations and dance companies alike, and studied in numerous music history courses. But Bausch’s commitment to the score is particularly raw. A contrast from Café Müller, the stage bursts with six times as many dancers. Thirty-six bodies transform the space into their own world of primitive ritual. The tables are gone, as if we are viewing the original dirt and dust utilized to build the café tables’ wood. Borzik’s set design for The Rite of Spring places the dancers on their own Earth. The dirt, which blankets the stage floor, emphasizes their grounded strength.

The dancers, each movement driven from the pelvis, commanded the space with virtue and athleticism. The massive group danced with the force of a nuclear bomb, matching Stravinsky’s stamina. While their movements are simple, they are explosive. Notable is their capacity not only for articulating drama through theater, but also through their technical precision.

They shuddered as one massive force of nature. Their actions indicated experiences of struggle, societal regulations, and status. Haunting my mind are images of the dancers creating a wide circle across the entire stage- and an exhaustive, collective collapse to the Earth. With each collapse, there is an equally capable rise.  

Even more striking than the group’s movement were the groups’ pauses. The sacrificial victim, facing her community in stillness, pierces through BAM. “She is the chosen one. She is the one to die. She will be the one to collapse…and never rise,” I thought to myself. Grief rippled through me, while her body rippled with her final exuberance of strength and endurance.

The sixteenth anniversary of 9/11 was only days ago. Watching The Rite of Spring’s victim, I associate her with a recent piece of literature I read on the pilots of America’s fighter jets; several planning to sacrifice their lives, in order to remove the threat to our nation. And here I am again, experiencing undeniable bravery on a primitive level. The audience empathizes with this victim. We root for her. We are stricken by her fate, by her bravery.

Pina Bausch’s legacy is shared with BAM at a time where the country requires a shift towards healing. We would do well to shift our weight with as much confidence, stability, and determination as the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal. I left BAM invigorated, reaffirmed that the strongest guidance is wordless. Forward we go.