Monday, July 23, 2012

Pina's Orpheus and Eurydice—Don't Look Back

Paris Opera Ballet in Pina's Orpheus and Eurydice. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Pina Bausch's Orpheus and Eurydice is one of those rare fully-produced operas led by a choreographer with enough name power to have complete artistic control. It was performed by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Koch Theater as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2012. And while a handsome artistic totality, perhaps predictably, it showed specific, fairly narrow elements of Bausch's talent.

Backing up a little, even before her premature death in 2009, Bausch's reputation and legend had been building into its own mythology, and with good reason. The works that BAM (where I work) brought beginning in the early 80s, and through the mid-90s, formed the foundation: they were unsparing, tough, gritty, sadistic, yet humorous, sensual, and ultimately optimistic about our ability to thrive in the face of adversity, without being as didactic as that just sounded. 

These tough works (including such pieces as Palermo, Palermo; Arien; Gebirge; Nelken; and Two Cigarettes in the Dark) in the eyes of her many fans forged her reputation as a visionary artist willing to put her dancers through hell and, literally, (not so high) water, and their willingness to endure her psychological steeplechases. They also paved the way for her subsequent phase, which would last for the remainder of her career— numerous commissioned travelogues about specific cities or cultures that shed most of the darkness that had engulfed her previous output. 

In all of these pieces, which had only been presented in New York at BAM, dance played a significant, but not necessarily proprietary, role. Often more memorable were the shocking scenes in which women (and occasionally, men) appeared to be if not actually tortured, then symbolically so. Or the comical vignettes involving one of her many charismatic dancers slowly promenading while doing something ridiculous, yet behaving as if it were the coolest thing in the world, and watching our reaction. Or the never-ending flirtations between women, in satin slip dresses and heels, and men in suits, or shirtless. 

The dance sections came with regularity, of course, but her slippery, lyrical phrases seemed fraught with urgency, as if the dancers needed to get them out of their system before the next bizarre section began. They were the glue that always brought the emotional dynamic back to neutral ground.

Marie-Agnès Gillot and Stéphane Guillion in the title roles. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Bausch created Orpheus and Eurydice way back in 1975; performed by her company, it was one of her earliest creations, after Iphigenie et Tauride and Rite of Spring, also in POB's repertory. It indisputably bears the look and feel of her collaborative team, with sets/costumes/lighting by Rolf Borzik (whose aesthetic was carried throughout her creative body of work by Peter Pabst and Marian Cito). The illusion of architectural partitions is formed by fabric panels, augmented by plexiglass panes and various dead or "live" flora; very tall chairs create a man-made forest. 

The women, barefoot, wore elegant long-sleeved, floor-length gowns of black, white, and pale pink throughout the respective sections (mourning, violence, peace, and death). The three featured solo singers wore black gowns of a similar design; they moved in concert with their corresponding doppelgänger dancers. (The Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble und Chor performed with clarity and verve in the pit.) The male dancers wore suits, butcher aprons, or nude-hued trunks. The long-limbed Marie-Agnès Gillot portrayed Eurydice in a red gown, and an ardent Stéphane Buillion, Orpheus, the night I attended. As fluent as the POB dancers were, I missed the strong, individual personalities that Pina had cultivated over many years in Wuppertal.

Bausch often relied heavily on a jukebox music approach to set the mood for each section in her non-operatic work. With Gluck's score as the one prevailing given, that liberty was taken away, so Bausch needed to describe the mood with action and movement. She couldn't or wouldn't use mime, instead relying on dance. Yet dance was but one tool she worked with, and she never seemed completely interested in expanding her fairly limited choreographic vocabulary, at least not the way she voraciously probed the human psyche, or new cultures.

Marie-Agnès Gillot as Eurydice. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Thus Orpheus is filled with repeating sweeping arms, taut upper body oppositions, and various plaintive gestures of sorrow. Pretty much just one character (Love) ever seemed happy (alright, I know it's the story of Orpheus); the rest moved somberly or apologetically, similar to the way Bausch usually carried herself in the public eye. The group dances were emotionally powerful—a Greek chorus evoking a tribal feel–with touches of primitive folk dance. An experiment with lengths of string, reeled out across the stage to form a sort of horizontal web, seemed only to be a hazard. And the final death scene was notable for its utter stasis as Gillot lay cross-wise on top of her vocal counterpart for a long time (Yun Jung Choi; Maria Riccarda Wesseling sang Orpheus). In a moment of restlessness, I recalled how early this work was in her career, and where Bausch would go from there.

1 comment:

Merilyn Jackson said...

I have this on DVD and with great sorrow had to miss this live. this is a wonderful review and I especially loved the line: "moved somberly, or apologetically, similar to the way Bausch carried herself in the public eye." So true. See my obit and review of her film on and DanceUSA From the Green Room