A painting, according to Marcel Duchamp, dies after 50 years. Dances are rarely so lucky. The West Coast premiere of Pina Bausch’s “Danzón,” which Tanztheater Wuppertal brought to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium over the weekend, was made in 1995. It felt marvelously alive Saturday. Yet “Danzón” lives on borrowed time. The company is now halfway through its third year without its founder.
Unlike Merce Cunningham who decreed that his dance company would disband two seasons after his death, Bausch made no such plans for Tanztheater Wuppertal, which she began in 1973. She died unexpectedly at 68 in June 2009, five days after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Cunningham was 90 when he died the same summer as Bausch. Although he worked almost to the end, he had ample opportunity to come up with an endgame. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performance is New Year’s Eve at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, on the other hand, soldiers on. The dancers could not imagine doing anything else. (The Cunningham dancers might well have felt the same had the decision been left to them, which may be one reason why it wasn’t.) Tanztheater has a current full season of several Bausch works in Wuppertal, Germany, and it continues to tour. It has ambitious plans for London next summer as part of the arts festival surrounding the Olympics.
Not only that, but the company is getting major mass market attention thanks to Wim Wenders’ “Pina,” the German filmmaker’s loving 3-D documentary on Bausch. Released in Europe earlier this year and opening in Los Angeles in January, it is a likely Oscar contender. But already Bausch is hot here. Zellerbach was packed Saturday, and an adoring audience appeared to be far more mainstream than the venturesome specialized audiences her work once attracted.
“Danzón” is not one of Bausch’s major works. At the time she created it, she was still coming to terms with being an international art star. She had begun traveling the world making pieces based on different locales. The inspiration for “Danzón” was Latin America. A year later in 1996, she made a more nuanced “Nur Du,” which had its premiere in Zellerbach and was based on her experiences in California, where she soaked up the scene in Los Angeles and stood in awe of the redwoods up north.
Still, Danzón does make sense for a short tour (Toronto and Berkeley were the only North America stops for the company, which hasn’t been in Los Angeles since 2007). “Danzón” doesn’t require tons of dirt or millions of carnations or a stage flooded with water, which is the case with some of Bausch’s more ambitious stagings. Backdrops set the scene. A large projection of tropical fish swimming in a tank, against which a dancer contorts, supplies instant magic.
The mood is light, almost sunny, with Bausch skirting those angst-ridden corners which she so magnificently inhabited. Instead, “Danzón” is an entertainment of vignettes that treat surprise as a happy event. By Bausch standards, it is not long, lasting 1 hour, 45 minutes.
And entertain these dancers do, even going so far as treating the regular humiliation Bausch cheerfully heaps on them with a wicked wink. Women (and sometimes men) strip with a sassy irreverence. Bausch often infantilized her dancers, dressing men as old ladies or in a large diaper.
Bausch was a master of making sexy metaphors. We are taught, for instance, in “Danzón” that the best way to practice kissing is to cut an orange in half. The eyes must be closed, and the tongue goes inside, surely the most sensual use of citrus since Susan Sarandon squeezed lemon juice on herself in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City.” A blindfolded man wheels flirtatious naked women in bathtubs off stage, he can’t see them, and we can’t either as they discreetly hide, making everything sweeter and all that much more alluring.
Music has always been Bausch’s secret weapon, and it certainly is that in “Danzón.” All of it — be it jazz saxophonists Ben Webster or Johnny Hodges, Maria Callas singing an aria from “Adriana Lecouvreur” or Billie Holliday, Latin pop or Greek — is non sequitur, unrelated to the stage business. Music doesn’t enliven action so much as caress the stage. It creates an atmosphere that somehow seems to give the dancers permission to inhabit their fantasies. I’ve never figured out quite how that works, but it always does.
Bausch uses text in equally mysterious ways. The veteran dancer Mechthild Grossmann, with her alluring Marlene Dietrich accent, reads from “Bambi,” and doing so inexplicably transports her listeners to what feels like some naughty or subversive moment in the Weimar Republic.
All the incidents, whether trivial or poignant or silly, touch a nerve. “I am here and you are there,” is a line that returns several times in “Danzón.” And we are all together.
But there is something troubling about feel-good Bausch, especially now. “Danzón” is an anomaly. Bausch made much stronger and unsettling pieces. And given the timing of Wenders’ upcoming tribute, touring the upbeat dance now felt a little like promotion, no matter how committed, expert and focused the performances were.
What couldn’t be ignored, of course, was the aging Bausch dancers. That they continue to parade around in stilettos and make a show of their sexuality may be touching, but it also a disturbing reminder of mortality.
This obviously can’t go on forever, or even that much longer. Wenders’ “Pina” will undoubtedly create significant new demands for a Tanztheater Wuppertal that has a glorious past but no real future.