For the 71st edition of the prestigious Holland Festival, which took place at various venues around Amsterdam for three weeks last month, artistic director Ruth Mackenzie chose the theme, “Borders and Boundaries,” one that is especially relevant today. In addition to music (with the focus on European composer George Benjamin), film, multimedia, theater, workshops and master classes, modern dance has also been a vital element of the Netherlands’ oldest and largest performing arts festival.
This year promised to be intriguing in the dance arena, as Tanztheater Wuppertal presented a full-length work commissioned from an outside choreographer, the first in the history of the troupe, which was founded by Pina Bausch in 1973, and whose sudden death from cancer at age 68 in 2009, shocked the dance world. Indeed, Adolphe Binder, the fourth director to run Tanztheater since then, and whose directorship began in 2017, chose Greek dancemaker Dimitris Papaioannou to make a work that first premiered on May 12 at Wuppertal’s opera house.
Called, “Neues Stück I: Seit Sie,” or “New Piece 1: Since She,” the 70-minute opus was conceived, directed and choreographed by Papaioannou, 54, who gained early recognition as a painter before shooting to fame after he staged the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics in 2004. He also performed for many years, as well as having designed costumes, sets and lighting for his own troupe, Edafos Dance Theatre, which he founded in 1986. The Greek’s 25 productions range from mass spectacles to intimate pieces, and often take cues from Robert Wilson’s glacially slow, acutely visual, highly theatricalized works.
Marrying that style with Bausch’s sense of the occasionally ridiculous and his own aesthetic, Papaioannou set the 80-minute work for 17 dancers (nearly half of the company’s 35 members), to a musical collage that included Verdi, Mahler, Wagner, Prokofiev and, well, Tom Waits. Tina Tzoka’s set design included a large pliable ziggurat of a hill made of black foam, with dancers intermittently climbing on it, emerging from it and sliding down its spiky peaks at various points during the performance.
But before those so-called action moves, the work began with an extended riff on chairs. An homage to Bausch’s “Café Müller,” with suit-clad men in shoes and women in heels and slips/cum/evening gowns (costumes by Thanos Papastergiou) traipsing across the furniture, this was a circus-like tableau akin to the madcap stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers “A Night at the Opera,” albeit one that seemed to go on endlessly.
In fact, the entire work consisted of a series of scenes that felt more disconnected than connected, as Papaioannou’s concerns with that noble triptych of religion, myth and the human body played out in über-ritualistic fashion. Admittedly, this viewer was curious to see what would arise next in a work that might also be described as ‘meticulous mayhem.’ Darkness abounded—metaphorically and physically (Fernando Jacon and Stephanos Droussiotis were credited with the lighting design), as traces of “Zorba the Greek,” “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu were also conjured through these tableaux vivants.
Scott Jennings had the dubious responsibility of being wrapped in streams of foil-like paper; another dancer was dragged by her feet on a cloth that also served as a resting place for five goblets of water— or was it Ouzo? Papaioannou is certainly not lacking in imagination, throwing nearly everything into the mix, including thin metal pipes upon which tables—and bodies—were rolled (hello, Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing Reproduced”), as a waltz crescendoed throughout the hall.
A woman squatted and gave allegorical birth—to uncooked, yolky eggs that plopped onto a plate, a man lapping them up as if he were a dog in what appeared to be a foodie scene—though far from Michelin-starred—as there was another man brandishing a hot dog, or was it a banana or generic phallus? A different man paraded around nude, his torso hunched forward, bells hanging near his genitals, his arms encased in long cylindrical tubes, giving him the look of a pre-historic quadruped, those gangly limb extensions urging him ever forward, bells clanging with each step.
One scene, set to Bach, featured a female viewed from the waist up, wearing (?) a surfboard-shaped, Renaissance-type mini-skirt, while underneath five dancing pairs of legs noodled about. The antics continued with a faux duel between two dudes making use of—yes, chairs—as if each were a lion tamer keeping the other’s beast at bay. Writhing bodies snaked downward from the fabricated foam mountain, others appeared homeless, dragging great piles of stuff behind them in Kafkaesque fashion.
Then there was a Titian-haired beauty, who looked to be decapitated, her head emerging between a man’s bare legs…and somewhere amid it all, Charles Ives’ haunting, “Unanswered Question” played, a bit of green foliage also sprouting up, this burst of color a welcome sight. The Bauschian chair motif returned yet again, this time with a lone man balancing and pyramiding one chair above another, all atop his shoulders as if he were a possessed-by-demons acrobat.
Amid the chaos, there were also images of a dancer with an animal-head mask, another gal sporting a gown and headdress of thin steel rods, while the occasional “Night of the Living Dead” theme featured dull-eyed walking.
As for any actual extended dance moments? There didn’t seem to be many, begging the question, ‘What did it all mean?’ Are we to take the work as a meditation on the evolution of man—with Boschian (Hieronymus) imagery reminding us of the unending struggles between desire, guilt and need—or do we accept the work for what it is, oddball lives animated by Papaioannou?
While nobody can ever fill the stilettos of Pina Bausch—just as there will never be another Merce Cunningham or Martha Graham—it is perfectly reasonable to have Tantztheater Wuppertal commission and perform new works by living choreographers. Sadly, though, “Neues Stück I” plays out in an artistic vacuum, one that may pay tribute to the dance theater genius that was Bausch, but only makes us long for the original Planet Pina.