Review: Pina Bausch’s artistry powerfully realized in performance of two classic works

A scene from The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Pina Bausch. Photo: Dee Conway Lebrecht.

Pina Bausch’s visceral, devastatingly beautiful setting of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has trailed its muddy feet on stages all over the world. But Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, has only danced it to live orchestral accompaniment a handful of times. Ottawa joined that short list Thursday night, with NACO in the pit for a knockout performance that combined burning virtuosity with raw emotion.

Tanztheater Wuppertal opened the NAC’s dance season with their late founder’s famous double bill, Café Müller and Rite of Spring. Both works date from early in Bausch’s career, 1978 and 1975 respectively.

Set to the stately chromaticism of Henry Purcell, Café Müller is for six dancers: a young couple, a middle-aged one, a man who interacts with everyone, and a woman who interacts with nobody, isolated but serene, gliding at the fringes of the stage in her white gown like an apparition.

The iconic set of crowded café tables and chairs is framed by plexiglass panels, creating a stage within the stage. Here is the physical dimension to the walls, divisions and borders that are a recurring theme in Bausch’s work: between men and women, freedom and dependence, the heart and the mind, the expressed and the implied.

Müller’s visual vocabulary still packs a punch. The sequence in which the older man keeps rearranging the younger couple to his liking, until they are trapped into helplessly repeating his patterns even after he leaves, has lost none of its impact. But to me, the work lacks the sly, knowing humour and lavish fancy of Bausch’s other works, a necessary counterpoint to soften some of her violent edge.

Violence is front and centre in Bausch’s extraordinary Rite of Spring. It’s one thing to read about the thick layer of brown earth covering the stage; it’s another to watch the stagehands carefully spreading it during intermission, as if they were preparing the field for a gladiatorial contest.

The dancing in Rite is almost guttural. Propelled by Stravinsky’s primal score, the women whip their arms and necks around while folded in deep pliés, or punch themselves in the torso with clenched fists. The dirt gives even balletic jetés and ronds de jambe a kind of slurring, heavy stutter.

The predatory men, meanwhile, simply take what they want, as the women huddle in frightened knots. The work can be interpreted as a metaphorical combat between reason and the awakening of animalistic desire. But there’s a distinct rape subtext that was amplified on Thursday night with tiny Tsai-Wei Tien dancing the part of the red-clad Chosen One. Watching a muscular, dirt-streaked white man frog-marching a miniscule, terrified Asian woman to her sacrifice was exquisitely uncomfortable. Tien’s final solo was pure frenzied desperation. Despite her size, she dances with huge amplitude and incandescent charisma.

NACO’s played with a thrilling intensity that matched the dancers blow for blow. Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro was a revelation, displaying athletic discipline and inexhaustible expressive stamina.

At intermission, a spiffily dressed gaggle of NAC dance and theatre staff performed Bausch’s charming Nelken line, in which dancers describe the seasons with four simple, repeated hand gestures as they walk in single file to a Louis Armstrong tune. Since the dance is easy enough for anyone to learn, the Nelken line has turned into a worldwide phenomenon, with people uploading videos of themselves performing it in unusual venues.

Two more performances of the Bausch double bill take place Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.