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Shallow Waters

On Friday March 3, Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House transformed into Pina Bausch’s fantasy of Brazil via “Água.” For nearly three hours, the charismatic dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, now under the direction of Boris Charmatz, rollicked through classic Bausch terrain—an endless parade of dreamy solos, comedic vignettes, and raucous ensemble scenes—inside a dynamic set.

Performance

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: “Água”

Place

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, March 3, 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

Tanztheater Wuppertal "Água" by Pina Bausch. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

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A huge white wall curves in a shallow arc along the back of the stage and towers over the white floor. Designed by Peter Pabst, who is also credited with the video design, this stark set is a stunning monolith when left all on its own. But the wall and floors frequently serve as a backdrop for busy projection that scrolls, zooms, and pans over a dizzying loop of landscapes, people, and animals.

Beginning with palm trees swaying in the breeze, a woman power-walks onstage peeling an orange. Through juicy slurps, she tells the story of getting a cramp in the middle of the night and how it led her to take in the starry sky. Her monologue is amplified through a microphone held by a man tucked into her side. After expressing gratitude for that cramp, she leaves the stage as another woman, Naomi Brito, saunters on. In a solo of sweeping arms and full body bends, hair flying and supple hands tracing the face—straight out of the glossary Bausch vocabulary—Brito embodies the waving fronds to the sounds of a whispering voice and a contemporary pop song. She thrashes with and against the wind as palms blow across the wall and floor, and it eventually twirls her offstage holding her skirt.

In contrast to the Brazil in Lia Rodrigues’s “Encantado”—an hour-long dance BAM presented last fall that dropped the viewer right in the heart of a vibrant favela—“Água” took the country in at a distance, mostly through the lens of a tourist. This was Bausch on holiday and the lighter touch resulted in dance theater that was more whimsical and frivolous in its iteration of her now well-known antics. Again and again, Brito would stand out as a local, her presence lending a measure of authenticity to a dance inhabited by vacationers.

Tanztheater Wuppertal “Água” by Pina Bausch. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

In Marion Cito’s resort wear, the full ensemble gathers to a percussive beat, arms floating up and swinging back, spinning them around in unison. The turning and flinging generates a grounded energy that builds before the dancers scatter in all directions. In a chasing sequence, women run at the men and throw themselves into their arms, the catch causing each pair to drop to the floor and spin on the ground before scrambling up. Meanwhile, the projection shifts to a group of Black men drumming.

Often it is difficult to track the dancers moving during the busier sections of video projection, even with a spotlight. However, in one mesmerizing solo set against a sailboat crashing in waves, a dancer floats in a sort of special effect between ocean and sky. In the intervals without video design, the white walls move up and down: when they lift, a more manicured jungle of a terrace is revealed. Returning down, the wall looms behind an enormous white circular sofa, a chic decoration that anchors the parties and their hangovers.

The mostly binary male/female relationships begin to date this work from 2001. Chairs are dragged on, creating platforms for the men to stand on while they hold their partners by the armpits. The women’s legs bicycle madly in place, and it is hard not to feel both the condescension and violence in the gesture—either they are spinning their wheels until they calm down or they are being kept from fleeing.

Tanztheater Wuppertal's “Água” by Pina Bausch. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

The examples continue: men kissing women in surprising or potentially unwanted ways (while the women giggle or run off); a woman presenting herself in a stilted posture for the sole purpose of receiving kisses to the chest; two women catcalling a man who appears to be dancing for their approval; a woman dry humping a man who is indifferent, crying out about her needs a woman; another woman flinging herself to the ground to expose her exquisite legs only to be passed over by three different men uninterested in her offering; men roughly rocking the women side to side, hands pressed in a vice grip around them from sternum to scapulae. The gender dynamics in tropes like these create imagery that is both powerful—in that it evokes a heightened version of a human experience we know can be true—but also confounding, as Bausch relished ambiguity in her work, and it is often unclear what is meant to be taken away from these fleeting encounters.

Unfortunately, the cisgender stereotypes and the romantic desperation they portray felt less humorous and poignant than in other Bausch works I have experienced. Perhaps my perspective has changed with time and the #metoo movement and a greater awareness about the broad spectrum of gender identifications. Or maybe the schtick is simply losing effect with overexposure. Though many of these moments had me cringing, there were others I admired for their mechanics or laughed at for their great timing and physical comedy.

In one scene, Brito dry brushes her legs—the same legs previously scorned—while singing a song. Here and there, she pauses to accent an “oh” in the microphone and make flirting eyes at the audience. During a beach party scene, towels with headless bodies and bodiless heads are brought out. The dancers vamp with them, mixing and matching in ridiculous combinations. In another bit, several men don sky-high platform shoes while still in swimsuits. They stand in a line in height order and pass a woman up their stair steps to the tallest man, back down, and up again to her delight. In the second act, a duet between Letizia Galloni and Alexander Lopez Guerra finally hits the mix of impulsive, sexy, and silly that so many other bits miss. Galloni enchants Guerra with a dance of abandon, pausing frequently to return to his chair and tease him with ice cubes. He laughs and shivers, and the sequence repeats in what feels like a consensual game until they run off together.

Tanztheater Wuppertal's “Água” by Pina Bausch. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Throughout, Julie Shanahan, a longtime member of the company, is delightful in her woman-on-the-brink character. In an overwrought monologue, she details a long list of random and outrageous things she wants to do, even though she knows “this is dumb” and “it’s not possible.” The list has her imagining and sometimes miming tearing paper, sawing a leg off a table, setting a ton of newspaper that she doesn’t have on fire, throwing a bucket of water on it, soaking the water up with her gorgeous dress, wringing it all out, breaking a glass and returning in evening wear as if none of it happened. Her general human desperation (as opposed to all the romantic overtures) and self-absorption was a welcome distraction, as she interrupts another dancer’s solo with anecdotes from her dance training. She returns in the second act with a heavy-lidded dance skit that could have served as inspiration for Jennifer Coolidge’s character in The White Lotus. With fluttering gestures of her hands, a playful circling of her leg, and the dramatic lolling of her head, she makes an Olympic event out of lighting a cigarette.

But in the monotony of the last hour a lot of impressive dancing is lost in the churning projection and somehow every repetition and reprise only deprive the production of momentum. By the time the dancers come together with cylinders to form a makeshift water pipe, I have long since forgotten about the title of the work and any hope for water to appear in large amounts like it did in “Vollmond.” Only a small amount trickles out before a man in charge shuts the rogue enterprise down. Instead, in a throwaway finale, they settle for spitting sips of bottled water out at each other, a juvenile action that feels almost illicit in a post-Covid context. Bathing in the small sprays, Brito once again pulls focus, regaling them, and us, with her engaging presence and the wit of her movement.

Unfortunately, the highlights aren’t enough to make “Água” compelling inside Bausch’s vast canon because ultimately, it is tanztheater-lite running at full duration.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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