I didn’t notice the stage until I found my seat. The curtain was already raised, and I realized with a jolt I was looking at a deeply familiar array of simple black chairs and cafe tables, shrouded in black, with oversized glass doors on three sides of the space. This was the set for Café Müller, one of the late Pina Bausch’s iconic works made with the German dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal, and my heart disappeared briefly in anticipation.
I had seen those chairs countless times before — in photos, in the celebratory and eulogistic documentary Pina, and in grainy YouTube footage. I knew this set as if it were a known place in my life, a place I used to physically occupy.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music was crowded and restless at the opening weekend of Tanztheater Wuppertal’s double bill of Café Müller and The Rite of Spring, another Bausch masterpiece. Bausch first brought these works to BAM in 1984, which helped permanently cement her status in the modern dance world.
Bausch died in 2009 and was the subject of the aforementioned documentary in 2011, directed by Wim Wenders. The film introduced me and countless others to the genre of dance theater and its impossibly rich possibilities of movement and meaning-making.
Café Müller is a near perfect example of this genre, with its blend of the abstracted and expressive qualities of dance and the reality-based familiarity of theater. One of its earliest scenes has a woman making her way across the space with her eyes closed and arms out like she’s sleepwalking. A man frantically pulls chairs and tables out of her way as she aimlessly crisscrosses the floor. The element of danger — that she might truly hurt herself — isn’t as present tonight as it could be, but it quickly sets the terms for the work: the transformation of a pedestrian space with emotive and surreal imagery.
The couple find each other in an embrace, and a second man appears in a dark suit. He slowly and mechanically adjusts their elbows and heads so that they kiss each other — their bodies pliable like dolls, heads unmoving, their lips simply resting against each other — and finishes the sequence by placing the woman in the first man’s arms. He makes to exit, but the woman falls to ground and, with a quick jump and spin, stands and wraps her arms tight around her partner. The man in the dark suit returns and goes through the same cycle only for her to fall and re-embrace again and again.
The timing is drawn out, and a large part of the audience the night I attended laughed with the tension, but it resonated with me as it always had on screen — as a drawn out sequence of power and trust, hope and control, two bodies manipulated and magnetized. Before you realize it, the pace is such that all three bodies are a blur of limbs and long brown hair and breath. The effect is something uniquely human, soaring, and visceral. The third man leaves the space but the two continue the sequence without him with a frantic, desperate energy.
I’m describing this sequence in as fine detail as I can because it’s representative of the sort of profound and accessible magic of Bauch’s art. Café Müller continues with scenes of similar imagination and effect. A second woman stays near the back of the stage for almost the entire duration of the piece, but when the emphasis switches to her she primarily solos with a specific vocabulary of outstretched limbs that move away and toward her body with the naturalness of breath. Her fluidity is stark as she glides, ghost-like, in a room of sharp and lifeless angles.
This isolated figure is the role that Bausch herself traditionally danced. There is something to the simplicity of the role — a simplicity that only amplifies its expressivity — that speaks to how profound Bausch was as a performer and creator. The wandering with outstretched arms is breathtakingly vulnerable, and I can’t imagine how difficult it is to attempt to fill her shoes.
Loosely, this work consists of three people (two women and one man) who are harried and corralled by three others (two men and one woman). At times, the fractured relationships and overwhelming catharsis leaves the impression that this café is actually a type of mental institution.
The work builds out this strange cafe world with themes of repetition and despair, dream-like escapes and bodily exertion. Later in the piece, the first couple alternate throwing each other against the cafe wall. It’s a measured sort of futile violence, and once again a large part of the audience reacts with laughter.
What endures in Café Müller is an ephemeral grandeur that’s somehow rooted in mundane things — some chairs, a few doors, a suit jacket, a pair of high heels. The movers in this world are wholly their own, but their relationships to each other as people and as bodies are both complex and sufficiently open that the conscious and unconscious worlds lose their distinction, and something greater — and fleeting — remains.
* * *
In the shuffle and hustle of intermission, I missed the tech crew setting up for The Rite of Spring: namely, by spreading an immense quantity of dirt across most of the stage. A space that was just a moment ago a soft-toned cafe became a large patch of dirt. If any audience member was still holding onto the catharsis of Café Müller, it was buried in the immediate and complete avalanche of Rite’s physicality.
The Rite of Spring differs drastically in tone and content from Café Müller, but they are both staggering in their creative and cathartic scale. Café Müller is interested in the terrible beauty that two people can create together; The Rite of Spring is a monumental and visceral response to and critique of a legendary work of dance.
The original ballet caused literal riots when it premiered in 1913 due to its utter subversion of classical ballet and music norms. Bausch’s interpretation is in deep conversation with the work’s history, traditions, and themes, but there is more than enough space to appreciate (and find enormous joy in) this performance without knowing any of its backstories and contexts.
The original narrative is based on pagan tradition and folklore: With the arrival of spring, a virgin woman is chosen and sacrificed to ensure a good crop yield. In both the original and Bausch’s interpretation, the dancers rush and fill the space in muscular sequences, such as the stomping of feet, flexing of arms, and slapping of hands. It’s bodily and ritualistic; the men and women form an antagonistic community. Women’s bodies are grabbed and held, and women’s bodies struggle to escape.
Bausch’s departures from the traditional template are more than enough to individualize and elevate her interpretation. Throughout, there’s a single red dress in the middle of space that passes around from person to person throughout the performance — a simple and brilliant visual element that so clearly stands out without clashing. This dress will signal who will be sacrificed, and its passing around among dancers is an important choice by Bausch. In the original, the sacrificial virgin is chosen right away and is locked into her fate. In Bausch’s version, the red garment’s passage from woman to woman signals that it doesn’t matter who is sacrificed, just that a sacrifice happens. It calls into question notions of purity and virginity, and the interchangeability of women in patriarchal structures.
Sweat turns the dirt to mud on the dancers’ bodies as the constant jumping, thrusting, grasping, and running takes its toll. When the score breaks for a moment of silence, the space fills with the heavy, even breathing of the cast. The dirt on the floor is an unnamed collaborator; it kicks up with the dancers’ feet, it leaves impressions of their bodies when they lie down, and it muffles the percussiveness of their bodies, giving the iconic score an even greater role in the work.
The climax is an extended solo by the woman eventually chosen to be sacrificed. As in the original, she dances herself to death. But instead of the trembling knees, the internal rotation, the jumping, and angular pose of the arms that were so revolutionary in 1913, this is an unrelenting lament. She frantically moves side to side across the space, diving to the ground, beating her chest, stopping, starting, unsure, wild, unbound, defeated. It’s an utterly mesmerizing crescendo. Time slips its hold, there is only this final moment before death. When death comes, it brings the roar of the audience.
Pina Bausch’s Café Müller/The Rite of Spring continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through September 24.