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Pina Bausch Trades Wounded Willows for Sunny Maidens in `Nefes’

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on December 11, 2006.

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg) — What could be prettier? Women who look like flowers in floor-skimming dresses of sun-kissed hues, tossing their long, unbound hair. Their manner is flirtatious and welcoming to the men — some stalwart, some poignant, some endearing clowns – who, apart from some duly allotted solo turns, serve as their admirers and cavaliers.

These charming, often amusing, people populate Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” (Turkish for breath). Created in 2003 as a result of a residency in Istanbul for the choreographer’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, it’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Dec. 16.

Pretty? Charming? A travelogue extolling romance? Pina Bausch? Beginning in the late 1970s, the German choreographer made her reputation by venturing deep into the wounded psyches inhabiting our postmodern world. Her dances presented eccentric, often hallucinatory acts of cruelty and absurdity, carried out in a prevailing weather of anomie. Animated (indeed, rescued) by singular personalities, her shows nevertheless were too long, too disjunctive, depressing without offering catharsis and only rarely witty.

Maybe Bausch got tired of being down so long. Maybe time mellowed her. Whatever the reason, by the end of the 1990s her dances began to feature large measures of sweetness and light. Somehow they don’t seem as honest as the earlier work; they certainly don’t pack its wallop.

Mutual Seduction

Like most of Bausch’s extravaganzas, “Nefes” proceeds as a series of events — often very brief ones — lacking narrative, set characters (except those implied by the temperament of each dancer) and a clear message. Presumably the connective tissue is a large, elastic theme: how men and women engage in mutual seduction (and, Bausch adds, slyly contradicting herself, are compromised by it).

Solos, duets, and vignettes for small clusters of people are central in “Nefes.” They’re offset with a few passages for the full cast that, at their most attractive, reveal the pleasures of a wider camaraderie. In all of these configurations, the memorable element is a visual image that combines loveliness with a touch of magic.

Acts of chivalry abound, beautiful and absurd. Single women walk along, languid and serene, each attended by a pair of crouched men who make the hems of their gowns ripple like petals in a spring breeze.

Sometimes the attention is raunchier, as when a man repeatedly humps a bored woman who leans over her wash bucket, hoping to get on with her other chores. But what water bearer — balancing on her head a long pole with an inflated translucent plastic bag suspended from each end — would not be grateful for two worshippers who support her willowy, erect body on the palms of their hands?


Now and then, the women don’t fare too well. The men toy with the most petite of them as if she were a child or a plaything, easily held and cuddled, easily flung any which way. On the whole, she seems pleased with her situation, full of kittenish smiles. But in one such scene, she — or is it her look-alike sister? — clearly is being abused and is granted a little solo of distress to drive the point home. For the most part, though, Bausch ignores Turkey’s social problems, like the mistreatment of women, and its political ones as well. She has called “Nefes” a respite from such matters.

The piece is much too long and many of its incidents unnecessary, redeemed only by the excellence of the performers. The music, an eclectic collage by Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider, can best be described as complementary.

Messy Stage

Decor is far more important to Bausch. She has always favored a messy stage, to underscore primal human functions and impulses. In “Nefes” she chastely restricts herself to water, referring to the Bosporus Strait, which runs through Istanbul. Designer Peter Pabst has engineered falling rain, varying from drizzle to torrent, which accumulates to form a little lake center stage. The dancers splash through it lustily on occasion, but more often –this is the new Bausch, after all — leave it becalmed, and picnic by its shores.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch is at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, through Dec. 16. Information: +1-718-636-4100 or

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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