Nelken

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Adelaide Festival, March 9.

Peter Pabst’s set for Nelken is one of the most beautiful created for any theatrical event. A dense field of thousands of silk carnations in several shades of pink covers the stage, ravishing in its simplicity and effect. It is absolutely lovely, but disconcerting too. A dance work usually requires the sets to stand back and huddle around the perimeter so there’s no impediment to movement. In Nelken (the word means carnations) the dancers must work with what they have. If that means finding a path through or trampling on blooms, so be it. Life isn’t perfect.

Nelken was made in 1982 as Pina Bausch was nearing the end of her first decade in Wuppertal, the industrial German city she made her creative home (she died in 2009). It’s a big piece that borders on the unwieldy, although messiness is part of Nelken’s meaning as well as its structure. In a series of encounters, both large and small, the human impulse to control the actions of others is repeated in sometimes brutal, demeaning form. And then something funny or stupid or surreal or uplifting happens and we can relax.

Nelken_11_credit_Jochen_Viehoff

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken. Photo: Jochen Viehoff

An action repeated several times is a stern man’s command that someone produce their passport. I was fascinated to note that for many in the audience at Nelken’s first performance this was vastly amusing. This may also be so for many other audiences in many other cities; I don’t know. If so, they are among the very fortunate for whom a demand to produce papers is entirely unknown. This act, which can have such devastating consequences, is entirely outside their range of experience.

I don’t mean to criticise those audience members. Such responses point to the many ambiguities in life that Bausch’s work lights upon. She doesn’t preach or explain. She just puts it out there, as with the German Shepherds seen briefly crossing the back of the stage with their handlers.

Nelken starts with a bucolic air. Beautifully dressed men and women bring chairs into the field of flowers and sit for a moment. A sign language translation of Ira and George Gershwin’s The Man I Love, much later repeated brings joy (and much applause). Soon the atmosphere becomes antic and childlike. Dancers – men and women alike – wear short dresses that, without being antique, bring to mind frolicking youths in a mythological painting. The déshabillé effect of garments not quite done up at the back and falling off shoulders is innocent and charming.

Elsewhere the women wear sleek gowns of much elegance (by Marion Cito), which swirl wildly in Nelken’s most extended dance section – to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden – in which the performers sway dramatically back and forth in chairs as to either side of the stage menacing towers provide a launching pad for a dramatic coup involving the four stuntmen who are also part of the performance.

In amongst the dance there is much talking, shouting and sometimes screaming, not all of it entirely comprehensible. I speak here of the articulation of words and the carrying quality of voices rather than meaning, which is generally quite clear. It can be frustrating when dancers are not quite up to the task of using their voices. But a few irritations and longueurs are a small price to pay. Indeed, moments of audience confusion and impatience are not necessarily outside of Bausch’s game plan.

Nelken_6_Paul_White_Credit_Alexandros_Sarakasidis

Paul White in Nelken. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

And the final scenes are radiant enough to melt any heart. Everyone in the audience is asked to stand for a brief lesson in how to embrace; there is a stately, transfixing evocation in dance of the passing of the seasons; and the last image is one of sharing, acceptance and grace.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch currently includes three Australians, Julie Shanahan, Paul White and Michael Carter and it was a huge pleasure to see them in this splendid, unique company.

Nelken ends on March 12 in Adelaide, after which the company goes to Wellington for the New Zealand Arts Festival. There the dancers perform Bausch’s celebrated Rite of Spring on a double bill with Café Muller.

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