A Week in Dance: Pina Bausch at BAM, RAW Material at DNA & “Sylphides” at Danspace

Joanna Kotze and Francis A. Stansky in "Between You and Me." Photo by Elle Chyun.

Actually, it starts a little more than a week ago when, a week ago this last Saturday night, I saw Pina Bausch’s Vollmond at BAM. And yes, it was amazing. The movement, the dancers, the spectacle all were overwhelming–I don’t think I’ve ever spent two and some hours in a theatre watching dance that transfixed. And yes, it was also European kitsch.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Even–if not especially–the greats get to have their late style, where their formal innovation is often at its height even as the urgency of what was once groundbreaking has faded into the new norm, and thematically the pieces become less ambitious. It’s true–compared to the shocking violence of, say, Cafe Muller, a work which will always amaze me, Vollmond is downright tame. A dozen dancers, unfettered by social convention due to the titular full moon, spend the duration of the show frollicking through an erotic wonderland of attraction, expression, romance, and sex, all backdropped by a stunning spectacle of water, deeply tied to the fertility rituals of Europe’s pagan past, which rains down, drifts by in a (literal) river onstage, and gets poured over and tossed in buckets around by the performers.

So yes, that’s really all I’m going to venture by way of description. It was an incredible work and an experience I’m probably going to remember…oh…the rest of my life.

And I bring it up because my other dance experiences over the week were, let’s say, less memorable. Thursday took me to RAW Material at DNA, where a half-dozen young choreographers, curated and mentored by Gus Solomons Jr., were showing ten-minute excerpts of new work. Some were better than others, but I do absolutely have to call out Joanna Kotze, whose Between You and Me was a fascinating study in perspective. Performed by Kotze and Francis A. Stansky, an apparent frequent collaborator of hers, the dance occurs on a stage bi-sected left and right by a row of waist-high light posts, each with an illuminated bulb at the top. Stansky and Kotze enter and perform solos on either side of the bi-secting line, which rather counterintuitively makes it a sort of point-counterpoint duet. The simple line of posts also proves to be a fascinating set to play with, as Kotze and Stanksy move about, switching sides. The simultaneity of the transition becomes a sort of exchange between them–each abandoning one space to the other–so that when ultimately they share the same side, that simple fact becomes weighted. In other words, it was a lovely and thoughtful use of space and the geometry of performance which is, unfortunately, often lacking in emerging artists. Kudos.

Then there was Friday, which took me to Danspace Project for Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud’s Sylphides, part of the 2010 Platform series curated by Trajal Harrell. I was curious to see the piece because I heard through the grapevine that these choreographers were touring fairly widely with the piece in Europe, though I personally hadn’t heard anything about it.

Upon entering, there are three what look like big, black pillows arranged on the stage. After being seated, a woman rather formally enters carrying an air compressor and, beginning with the pillow stage right, patiently uses the compressor to deflate what’s now obviously (due to the rather overwhelming odor of what I assume are phthalates) inflated black plastic sacks, ultimately revealing a dancer (the first one was Bengolea) inside.

I guess this is related to a sci-fi-ish fetish I’d never heard of before called a Vacbed (here’s the website; possibly NSFW depending on where you work), in which someone is effectively vacuum-sealed inside a body bag, the visual effect being…well, it looks like Han Solo in carbonite, okay? And yeah, it was kind of cool in a sculptural way to see the performers sealed inside like that (they breathe through little straws) as the woman patiently deflates all of them.

Then there was some very slow movement while still vacuum packed, which I guess was supposed to build off the drama of seeing people confined thusly. Which was cool for a while. But the extremely slow movement, which was always sort of lurching in order to emphasize the constriction, not so slowly became boring. Then the piece picked up again when the woman re-inflated the body bags, leading to a pretty funny sequence in which some hops around the perimeter of the space inside a big inflated pillow while other people perform gravity-defying leans (which are only gravity-defying because you can’t see what the dancer’s actually doing inside). But it was funny. I chuckled.

And then there was the end, and I have to caveat this by expressing my deep and continued ambivalence about it. A sylph is a winged faerie spirit of the air in European mythology, but in common usage it’s a most often part of butterfly names, which makes a certain sort of sense (airy spirits…butterflies…yadda yadda). And of course the ideas of spirits, air, and wings all had already appeared in Sylphides, but I was dreading the piece ending in an outright butterfly metaphor in which the dancers emerge from their body bags as though from cocoons, to flutter about the stage having hatched, at last.

This is exactly what happens.

The last sequence of the show begins with the woman again deflating the body bags and yanking the zippers open as the dancers rest in various prostrate positions. The odd leg, arm, or bit of hair is visible through the gaping openings. Slowly, they begin to move their arms and legs, as though using them for the first time, and wiggle their way out of their cocoons to reveal themselves: the two females in revealing outfits, and Chaignaud, long blond hair flowing gloriously, in a pink-toned, almost tie-dye patterned unitard. A French pop song–the first real score to the piece–kicks in, and the three flounce about the stage enamoured of the pure joy of moving these marvellous bodies they’ve just hatched into.

Describing my response is sort of hard. Years ago, having nothing better to do one night, I went with my girlfriend to see Dude, Where’s My Car? It’s a funny movie. You also can’t really talk when you leave because, well, it’s not exactly stimulating fare. In fact, you feel kind of stoned. That was akin to the effect of Sylphides. It wasn’t bad by any means–it should have been, but the truth is, watching the trio bellyflop across the stage, dance about, fall down…it worked. They owned it. You really did feel the sort of simple joy of movement they aimed for. It goes on for the duration of a pop song, and then it’s done.

And so I left the theatre and started wandering through the East Village toward my subway a little dumbfounded. Slack-jawed perhaps. And after a block or two, I found myself grinning. It was just one of those things. A friend of mine (the one who suggested I see it) texted me to ask how it was, and my only response was essentially that I wouldn’t program it myself, but honestly, I think I liked it. And as she put it, sometimes that’s just how art is.

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