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Tanztheater Wuppertaal Pina Bausch

'Café Müller' and 'Le Scare du Printemps'

by David Mead

March 30, 2013 -- National Theaer, Taipei

In these days when so much is over-hyped, ‘masterpiece’ is a something of an overused term. It is, though, hard to think of any other description for the late Pina Bausch’s seminal “Café Müller” and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (Rite of Spring).

Bausch’s parents ran a small hotel with a restaurant - not, incidentally a café as stated frequently, or tavern as described in an overly descriptive programme note that told of everything that was going to happen in detail but without ever really addressing the essence of the work. When she was supposed to go to bed, she would hide under the tables and simply watch. She once explained how, when she looked back on her childhood, she sees pictures filled with people, smells and sounds. In “Café Müller” she brings each of those into public view. The friendship, love and quarrels that she observed, are given life. Yet, it is as if those memories are somehow wandering around, ill at ease and still searching for a place where they can be at peace.

It opens with a woman, dressed in an flowing white, ethereal gown, apparently sleepwalking into a cluttered café or restaurant. She bumps into the chairs and tables strewn around the room, later keeping to the wall, as if an outsider looking in on a dream; her own dream, perhaps. An enigmatic lady with a mop of ginger hair totters through the maze of furniture in her red heels and black coat. Another woman enters more forcefully but still in a sort of trance. This time, a man hurls the furniture out of her path. But rather than a sense of caring, there’s an atmosphere of frustration and violence. Are these different sides of the same woman, or perhaps different aspects of life? Whichever, all the time the tables and chairs seem to represent more than furniture.

The famous scenes still hit hard. A man holds a woman in his arms but drops her. Is he tired, careless or cruel? That is for the viewer to decide. Another man replaces her in the embrace, but she is dropped again. It repeats until eventually she positions herself; again and again, faster and faster. It is about memory and, perhaps, a sad comment on how much we are prepared to endure for love, both feelings emphasised by the words of Purcell’s despairing aria from “Dido and Aeneas” at this point, “Remember me, remember me, but ah forget my fate!”

Violence recurs later too, notably when a man and woman repeatedly hurl each other against a wall. It is funny, then sad, then disturbing. The multiple repetitions, a trademark Bausch device, are hugely effective.

A testament to the staying power of “Café Müller” is that there are still new things to see, even after countless viewings. Events and images make impacts in new ways, here not least the lady repeatedly ‘walking on air’ far upstage during the closing moments. It may be 34 years old, but it has lost none of its power. “Café Müller” still mesmerises.

With 2013 being the centenary of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, we are no doubt in for a riot of “Rites” new and old. Choreographers and companies worldwide are gearing up for new and restaged productions. The exact date is May 29, by the way. Slightly strange, then, that reference to the anniversary in the programme was restricted to a single sentence.

Many choreographers have tried and failed to match Stravinsky’s thrilling score. Bausch had no such problems. It was her 1975 “Le Sacre du Printemps” that first truly propelled her onto the international stage, and it remains the one of the best interpretations around.

“Sacre” opens with a woman lying on top of a red slip that looks like a pool of blood beneath her. It is a portent of things to come. Slowly, against a grim and dark background, on a blank stage carpeted in soil that slowly stains the dancers and their costumes, Bausch shows us the selection and death of a sacrificial victim, although the chaos on stage means we do not find out who the chosen one is to be, who is to finally don that slip that remains on stage throughout, until near the end.

Bausch delineates sharply the men and the women, emotionally and in movement. The men are strong, muscular and forceful. Fear is writ large through the choreography. As in “Café Müller”, violence runs through the work. There is an overwhelming sense of fury and rape, even terror, as they dance with the cowering women. All the time, it is as if the bodies are trapped by the music, heading towards a climax that they cannot escape. If anything, her moments of stillness, which often come suddenly, only heighten the tension still further. Welcome to a nightmare world

This was a powerful performance that set the spine tingling - until the final solo. For the performances in Taipei, local dancers were added to the company, with the lead role of the victim taken here by Yu Tsai-chin. She certainly had all the steps and technique to dream of. She was beautiful and lyrical. But she was too beautiful. She didn’t make me believe. It all seemed to be about the external look with little coming from the inside. The raw, earthy, physicality of the dance that sets this version of “Sacre” apart and that makes it so special was sadly missing.

Four years after Basuch’s death, Tanztheater Wuppertaal is still in remarkably good shape. Rolf Borzik and Dominique Mercy, the latter wonderfully evocative in “Café Müller” are clearly doing an excellent job. The company is no doubt lucky in still having so many dancers who worked with the great lady. But questions still remain about the future. There is clearly still a huge appetite for her works. Theatres could still be sold out many times over. But I do wonder how long can the company go on dancing only historical pieces, especially given that so many of them are rooted so solidly in the original performers.

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