writers on dancing


Pina Pina

"Palermo Palermo"
Tanztheater Wuppertal
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
February 10-20 2005

By John Percival
Copyright 2005 John Percival

I don't know anyone who claims to have seen Pina Bausch dancing "Jardin aux Lilas" when she was a pupil of Antony Tudor at the Juilliard School, but I know for sure that it happened because I have seen a photograph of her as the Episode from his Past with Anne Woolliams (John Cranko's future assistant) as Caroline. Wouldn't that have been a fascinating experience? I should also love to have seen Pina in the duet "Tablet" which her fellow Juilliard pupil Paul Taylor created soon afterwards for her (as a praying mantis) with Dan Wagoner in Spoleto. No such luck—but at least I did have my first experience of her work when she was directing the Folkwang Ballet in Essen as Kurt Jooss's successor, and they came to London. I think it must have been to the Round House, and I am not sure whether any other critics were there, but I was sufficiently impressed to go to Wuppertal when she later became director there and my friend and colleague Horst Koegler began to grow enthusiastic about some of her pieces.

Consequently, by the time of her first visit with Tanztheater Wuppertal to Sadler's Wells in 1982 I was already a big fan of such works as "Rite of Spring", "Seven Deadly Sins" and "Bluebeard", and I went on seeing whatever I could. So I know it isn't true of all critics here that they were "grumpily dismissive" as suggested in a programme note of this latest season, although I must admit that even now some of our writers seem blind to her virtues. Still, at least the present management at Sadler's Wells is keen; it took from 1982 to 1999 to arrange the company's second visit, but now they have come three times in six years. And audiences respond eagerly: every performance sold out, and queues for returns.

The repertoire this time was two works from the 1980s. "Palermo Palermo" has not been to Britain before. Created in 1989 as the result of a stay in the Sicilian capital, it seems to me less cogent and compelling than anything else I've seen from Bausch. It has its great moments, above all the very beginning when a huge wall right across the stage suddenly collapses with a great crash. This then provides the dancers with challenges to stumble across the rubble. But maybe what follows has to be a let-down after that bold start. The interactions in this setting are largely about giving and receiving orders. A great deal of food is involved, often in strange ways: a woman gloating over individual sticks of spaghetti, "That's mine"; a man shooting at tomatoes or cooking steak on an electric iron; everyone balancing apples on their heads. Six men bash out the opening of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, over and over again, on old upright pianos in a line across the stage, and stop just before driving us mad. That's one of Bausch's many little jokes; another has a man "swimming" in one jug-full of water poured on the stage.

High-heeled shoes feature prominently, but so do bare feet, and one guy is kicked repeatedly on the backside, forcing him to disgorge all the goodies hidden in his clothing. One poor chap is left forever taking a bath at the back; two others are repeatedly called to minister to a woman's wish for attention. There's hugging and chasing, and a woman who takes photos while whirled head over heels. The dancers scatter litter everywhere. If this is what Palermo is like, I can live without Sicily—even for the flowering trees which arrive (upside down!) at the end. There is even some ordinary recognizable dance too, although maybe less than in her other works; but this woman makes everything into dance. And it's never dull; if this is the worst Pina can do, she still leads the field in making movement theatre - and in theatre that moves us, too.

The other work given, "Nelken" (German for Carnations) dates from 1982 and I've seen it previously with joy in Edinburgh and Holland. This is crammed full of action from stuntmen as well as dancers. These leap from tall towers but, even more impressively, they jump on to a table and tumble off, scaring the woman who watches them as they push the table nearer to her. Chairs are sat upon almost any way but the normal, legs are kicked out, dancers persuade audience members to go outside with them, dogs are brought threateningly on, and veteran dancer Dominique Mercy is made to imitate a dog, a frog and other creatures. It's also he who has to placate any dissatisfied spectators by showing them a manège, pirouettes, entrechats and tours en l'air—you can't help sympathising with his breathlessness. And Lutz Foerster rendering "The Man I Love" in sign language remains a highlight, his hair now a startling blond; Bausch keeps her performers going as long as possible, although big, burly Jan Masarik has now gone, to be replaced by slimmer, lighter Andrey Berezin as the demander of passports. And you do know, don't you, that the stage is entirely covered with hundreds of pink carnations? This work is terrific; no other choreographer could organise it and I want to go on seeing it.

Volume 3, No. 8
February 21, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by John Percival


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