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Questions that Remain

To begin her creative process, the legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch often asked her dancers questions. These questions—and further, the thoughts and deeper rumblings they provoked in the dancers—then formed the basis for many of her pieces. Bausch was typically concerned with the emotional and psychological charge of the bodies she choreographed on, and no piece showcases this more than her 1982 masterwork “Nelken.” Premiered eight years before the reunification of Germany, and haunted by other atrocities of that country’s not-so-distant past, “Nelken” does not escape shades of brutality; still, its primary concern seems to lie in the various ways our closest relationships can provide comfort. How, Bausch seems to ask, can we care for each other despite the horrors? 

Performance

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: “Nelken”

Place

Sadler's Wells, London, UK, February 14, 2024

Words

Phoebe Roberts

Letizia Galloni in Pina Bausch's “Nelken.” Photograph by Paul Andermann

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This question remains just as relevant today as in 1982, and was certainly on the forefront of everyone's minds last Valentine’s Day evening at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The first visit of “Nelken” to the UK after Bausch’s death in 2009 (it was last performed here in 2005), the performance was the opening night of a sold-out run by Tanztheater Wuppertal, and at no point failed to enchant a particularly game audience with its various charms and quirks. Before the dancers even appeared onstage, viewers crowded the area near the first row to get photos of the production’s unique set design: thousands of pink carnations carpeting the stage floor (nelken, in German, is the flower of the same name). This enthusiasm carried throughout the piece, and continued to the standing ovation offered at the performance’s end. 

Bausch’s genius lies in her particular blend of dance with dramatic elements, all of which are on display here: the performers cry, laugh, scream, chop onions, and, of course, dance. The piece begins with a solo male dancer, the elegant Reginald Lefebvre, signing the lyrics to George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Alone onstage, Lefebvre stares out at the audience as though in on some joke which we will momentarily be made aware of; his smirk tells us it will be a good one. Indeed, there are many good jokes throughout “Nelken,” but the greatest one seems to be our willingness to be present here, witnessing and taking part in this joyous absurdity together. With a frank regard and amused smile, Lefebvre seems to be saying, “Isn’t it funny? Let’s dance anyway.” 

Reginald Lefebvre in Pina Bausch's “Nelken.” Photograph by Oliver Look

A whirlwind of various scenarios then play out over the next roughly hour and fifty minutes, some more lighthearted than others. Much has been made of the use of four Alsatian guard dogs who briefly appear to patrol the field of carnations, and the moment is certainly reflective of a darker undertone which at times threatens to derail the mostly happy proceedings. At other points, a policeman-like figure (Ashley Chen) trudges around the stage, interrupting dances and demanding to check passports. His presence, along with that of the dogs, evokes the idea of the border and its various connotations of violence and the ferocity with which it bears down on identity politics. To pass a check, one performer must act out various animal noises; another is forced to change from a dress to a suit. 

These moments of brutishness are offset by scenes in which the ensemble comes together in a variety of ingenious contexts. In one particularly humorous passage, a group of three men attempt to console a dejected solo dancer (Simon Le Borgne) by listing the various ways they confront life when it gets overwhelming.“I simply pretend to be sensitive,” one advises matter-of-factly, “and when I am not pretending to be sensitive, I pretend to be depressed.” In another, more serious moment, others watch as a young woman (Emily Castelli) in a pink slip dress repeatedly pours dirt over her head. It’s a hopeful gesture: she seems to be announcing a rebirth, carefully and bravely replenishing her supply while awaiting future growth. Soon, the others join in too, throwing caution to the wind and likewise dumping dirt over their heads. 

Luciény Kaabral, Andrey Berezin, Alexander López Guerra in Pina Bausch's “Nelken.” Photograph by Oliver Look

The famous “Nelken” line—a scene in which the dancers walk in a single file line, performing the same distinct gestures meant to represent the four seasons over and over again—comes towards the end of the program, and is nothing short of a triumph. The pride with which the Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers execute these simple movements is enough to make you want to watch them do it forever, and endears us to the smallest details of their individual physicalities: an outstretched wrist here, a particularly luminous smile there. As the line continues to snake up and around the stage, the performers’ resolve and enjoyment only seems to deepen, lending the whole affair the grandness of a Balanchine polonaise. In a piece filled with highpoints, it’s the crowning glory; one wishes it would never end. 

Pina Bausch's “Nelken.” Photograph Uwe Stratmann

“The Man I Love” passage returns once more before the close of the piece, as does Lefebvre to sign Gershwin’s well-known lyrics. The sense of longing that the song foregrounds at “Nelken’s” start—“Someday he'll come along/ The man I love/ And he'll be big and strong”—has not yet been fulfilled, but it doesn’t seem to matter: what we have witnessed in the interim far surpasses the arrival of any one individual. By bookending the piece with this theme, Bausch seems to be highlighting the beauty of the mess that has transpired between these two points: the dancing, the laughing, the dirt-flinging, and ultimately, the love. In this sense, “Nelken” most closely reflects life itself—it’s really what happens while we are waiting for something, or someone, else. 

“Nelken” is one of Bausch’s many masterpieces, and the current generation of Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers do extraordinarily well to uphold the choreographer’s ever-alive legacy and generosity of spirit. Let us hope it is not another nineteen years before they, and their many blooms, return to London once more. 

Phoebe Roberts


Phoebe Roberts is originally from New York where she trained with American Ballet Theatre and Leslie Browne. She danced with Béjart Ballet Lausanne before studying Russian at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She is currently pursuing a master’s in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her writing has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Good Press, Glasgow, and Spectra Poets.

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