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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

German Modern Dance Danzón Is Even Weirder Than You Think It Would Be

Posted By on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Thanks for all the fish: The late Pina Bausch - MAARTEN VANDEN ABEELE
  • Maarten Vanden Abeele
  • Thanks for all the fish: The late Pina Bausch

Danzón by Tanztheater Wuppertal

December 2, 2011

Zellerbach Hall, U.C. Berkeley

Better than: A ride in a submarine.

A housewife licks the floor clean, an old queen demonstrates her royal curtsy, video clips of tropical fish fill the stage in glorious high-definition: Summing up the episodic plot of German performer, teacher, and choreographer Pina Bausch's 1995 dance-theater piece Danzón is like describing a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. There's too much happening to be certain you've got it all.

And yet you don't need to "get" much to enjoy it. Abstract art is open-ended like that. So was Bausch's choreographic technique, as rendered by her group Tanztheater Wuppertal at Zellerbach Auditorium on Friday. (Bausch died in Wuppertal, in her native Germany, in 2009.) Post-show, you might have heard a little gender analysis, the idea that classicism keeps society in blinders, references to Pedro Almodóvar (who featured Bausch in Talk to Her), and plenty of wondering about why half the audience thought those fish were so damn funny.   

You can get an idea of what the performance was like from this trailer for PINA -- Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost, a film by Wim Wenders. I was among the wondering-about-fishes crowd. But it was easy to see the humor in Danzón's opening: a diapered man-baby crawls onstage to find a pair of lady-sylphs on the floor, waving serene limbs. Using several strategically placed rocks, he weighs them down, turning their gestures wan and powerless. He watches them struggle while sucking his thumb. Patriarchy much? Danzón is filled with sequences like this: absurd, polarized by gender roles, easily balancing charm and menace. (The national dance of Cuba, danzón could also mean "great dance," with a structure alluding to human interaction itself.) Soon, Regina Advento (who is possibly a bodybuilder?) stalks onstage to announce, "I am here, and you are there." In a brazen reversal, Advento walks down to the front row, hustles an audience member onstage to "show us something," then steps back, waiting to be impressed. Viewer as performer, performer as viewer! It's a light theatrical trick, heavy with the expectations of 2,000 sets of eyes. And don't worry, the invitee is Dominique Mercy, one of the group's artistic directors, doing a spot-on Dame Edna impression. Mercy's character demonstrates the super-deep curtsy she once gave to the Queen Mum, hinting at another theme -- the joy and burden of nostalgia. This being dance-theater, pyrotechnical brilliance is a peer to subtler character-driven portrayals. Bausch's torrid, full-bodied style demands everything from her dancers, whose physiques alone deserve praise. The women have flesh, often a lot of it; the men range from sad-sack to action figure; everyone seems cast to comprise a cross-section of today.

Aida Vainieri - BETTINA STOΒ
  • Bettina Stoβ
  • Aida Vainieri
As usual with Bausch, Danzón's props and set design go heavy on symbolism, overinflating and exploding age-old tropes. (This deepens the inscrutability of the tropical-fish video, even as its beauty overwhelms that of the dancer before it. Why was this sequence so unbearably long? Why was the dancer so sparsely lit? What does it mean that this role was once Bausch's, and it's now performed by a tall young man -- someone we don't see before or after?) But back to symbolism: There's a fire -- major flames! -- at the stage's corner. Before he can extinguish it, Mercy's character, in feather-boa drag, feels compelled to change into slacks and a shirt. By the time he's man enough to fight a fire, the thing is nearly out. So he does a little heroic-struggle dance. Elsewhere, women bare their upper thighs and sit, just so, on flaming lighters, snuffing them out with easy, synchronized grace. I can't convey how strange this was. After about a million false endings and unforgettable images, Danzón reconstitutes its final moments from the familiar. The diapered man wanders back on stage to suck his thumb. Mercy, a leader of the group since Bausch's death, repeatedly casts dirt on the stage, as at a row of graves, as his queen's curtsy comes out the other side. The housewife growls out a poem citing Goethe's memory of Arcadia. And I'm still wondering about those fish.
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