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Masterpiece is the only word

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
11/07/2014 -  & November 8 (Ottawa), 12, 13, 14, 15 (Montreal), 2014, June 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 2015 (Wuppertal)
Pina Bausch: Vollmond
Tanztheater Wuppertal, Pablo Aran Gimeno, Rainer Behr, Silvia Farias Heredia, Ditta Miranda Jasjfi, Dominique Mercy, Nazareth Panadero, Helena Pikon, Jorge Puerta Armenta, Azusa Seyama, Julie Anne Stanzak, Michael Strecker, Fernando Suels Mendoza (dancers)
Amon Tobin, Alexander Balanescu, the Balanescu Quartet, Cat Power, Carl Craig, Jun Miyake, Leftfield, Magyar Posse, Nenad Jelic, René Aubry, Tom Waits (musicians)
Pina Bausch (director and choreographer), Peter Pabst (set design); Marion Cito (costume design); Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider (music collaboration); Robert Sturm, Daphnis Kokkinos and Marion Cito (collaboration); Alexandra Corrazola (set design assistant); Jo Van Norden (costume design assistant), Lutz Förster (artistic director)

(© Laurent Philippe)

Pina Bausch, who died age 68 in 2009, may be the most innovative choreographer of the second half of the twentieth century. Her work demonstrates conspicuous influences from Martha Graham, Roland Petit and others; however she brought the established concept of dance performance to a radical new level. Among her final large scale masterworks, Vollmond (which translates as Full Moon) received its Canadian premiere in Ottawa this weekend and continues to Montreal during the coming week, ending a North American tour which included another program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

I have not seen anything on a live stage comparable to Vollmond since Peter Brook’s legendary circus-stunt staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream more than forty years ago. Indeed, it is a misnomer to categorize Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch as a dance company, because there is so much more happening than dance and even music (which also is wonderful, and is integral and never mere background). The dancers talk and sing, their choreography is as acrobatic as balletic, and the use of water (showers from above, a stream on stage, and carefully choreographed tossing of glasses, bowls and buckets of more by the dancers throughout the performance) is mind boggling.

Vollmond opens abruptly with two male dancers, swooshing and tossing with their arms an empty plastic water bottle, each ‘tuned’ to the same pitch. At once, the performance’s tone is established - literally as well as metaphorically. The water bottles soon lead to large wine glasses, the pouring of water and the spitting and spilling of it. The first act ends with a spectacular rain shower from above: the stage floor for Vollmond includes a carefully designed trough flowing full stage width and underneath the enormous sculptured moon rock which is centre background for the entire performance.

The opening might seem a kind of conflicted male bonding. However, an attractive, needy female soon joins the equation. Bausch stated that the work concerns the humanity of her twelve “dancer-actors” and Vollmond indeed unfolds an accumulation of scenarios increasingly grandiose and elaborate, though the stories and challenges are eminently human, simple and sympathetic. If it’s a woman’s perspective that illuminates this work the perspective is neither confrontational nor even what many would likely characterize as feminist or otherwise polarized. The women and men in Bausch’s scenarios are equals - sometimes equally silly and stupid, and sometimes equally noble, caring and giving.

The gravel voiced Nazareth Panadero, barking orders and proclaiming in a campy growl, “fasten your seatbelts...”, seemed to be channeling Lotte Lenya and Tallulah Bankhead as much as Bette Davis in a haughty, gorgon characterization. Otherwise though, the ambience of music and the stark setting consistently reflected the 1960s, the decade of Bausch’s own youth. With ongoing tableaus of confused romantic and aggressive communication Vollmond echoed movies ranging from Last Year at Marienbad and A Man and a Woman through 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While structure for Vollmond seems loose, it is deceivingly well calculated and reveals a sensibility akin to an astute film editor who understands just how long and far to push certain tales and moods, and always avoids indulgence. One instance is the early diagonal formation of dancers (redolent of Swan Lake’s cygnets) in cavorting over a line of wine glasses. The same formation is used toward Vollmond’s end bringing everyone full circle, as it were.

The music also is wide ranging, but never haphazard or frivolous. Much of it is electronic; a string quartet is featured prominently in the second act. A low-key Mariachi band then mid-60s French movie parody were as brilliant as they were hilarious.

Standing ovations are frequent at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. However, the uproar from the sold out opening night at Southam Hall was closer to that for Sting or Lady Gaga than what we usually experience for orchestra, opera, or even ballet performances. It was an appropriate response to Vollmond, a truly spectacular work which can be described only as a masterpiece.

Charles Pope Jr.



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