German choreographer Pina Bausch came to our own Arizona desert several times looking for material for her latest work, Nur Du, whose Arizona premiere is Thursday night at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Translated into German from the 1955 Platters hit "Only You," the title song, one of 34 blues, pop and underground songs in the show, closes the first act of the three-and-a-half-hour, $2 million dance-theatre work. It was jointly commissioned by four American universities: Arizona State University, University of California at Berkeley, the Center for the Performing Arts at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin.
Nur Du, like other performances by Bausch's troupe, Tanztheater Wuppertal, promises to be an outlandish spectacle. A sort of homage to the American West, the production deploys 28 dancers; seven full-size redwood-tree replicas weighing eight tons; 2,300 gallons of leaves; a fiber-glass whale; 1,500 pounds of costumes; 300 pounds of shoes; and four live white mice.
To picture the scale of Bausch's work in terms of theatrical spectacle, think of Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, Lee Breuer or Bertolt Brecht. Cinematically, think of Lina Wertmuller or Fellini. Those artists share Bausch's large, often convulsive vision. Bausch claims she only means to explore, not to provoke. Nonetheless, her works and sets often assault the audience head-on with their startling imagery and grotesque scenes. For example, 1985's Two Cigarettes is a madcap but deadpan ass waltz in which four party-animal couples swish across the floor--always on their fine dancers' hams--to the ever more driven tempo of Ravel's La Valse.
The cumulative power of her scenes attacks the senses, eventually revealing something complex about male/female relations--almost always her main topic.
But Bausch tempers her works with tenderness, hilarity and a wacky respect for traditional dance. Most of her 25 works entertain and are touchingly human--even when a dancer portrays an animal. At the end of Nur Du, Dominique Mercy renders an eloquent solo, in tutu, of "The Dying Swan."
"After all," Bausch admits, "I am part of the public. I watch the dance, I want to feel, to suffer with somebody, to laugh."
Her men and women are always seductively tarted up as if for a pub crawl. Critics have complained that they "constantly kill the magic in themselves," or that her works "tell us people are born to torment one another." But magic is killed only to be reinvented, and people torment one another only to commit acts of contrition and healing. Through Bausch's perspective, the tragedy of our condition is at once hysterically comic and tenderly honest.
Tanztheater Wuppertal is booked through the end of the century both in Wuppertal, the Ruhr Valley city where Bausch, 56, is affectionately known as "the Pina," and all over the world where the group's performances almost uniformly earn critical acclaim.
The 22-year-old-troupe combines theatre and dance in nonlinear, episodic scenes that loosely interconnect. The dancers speak, mostly in English. In Nur Du, Julie Shanahan proclaims that she is naked underneath her clothes and asks us if we realize we are, too. Jan Minarek dons white fox and live mice while he gives identical hairdos to several women as the tune "Only You" spins out. Between those scenes, a gated community of paper houses gets knocked down and rebuilt, people shower in translucent plastic cylinders and party on as the Earth rattles beneath them. Kind of a slice of life, for some.
Visuals from earlier Tanztheater works have rendered such unforgettable images as red lip prints covering a man's face like a wallpaper pattern, men and women splattered in mud and trying to survive on a stage flooded with water, and tons, as a French reviewer put it, of Teutonic titties flitting by.
Last week, Bausch and her longtime set designer Peter Pabst fielded questions in a packed hall of dancers at ASU. Asked how such elaborate sets are assembled, Pabst dryly described a long process. He's not impulsive, he said. "The thing is not to follow your first reflex, but to keep on searching. I may make six models before we start to see that it's happening."
Then Bausch was asked how she makes a new work for her 29-member troupe. As "the Pina" spoke, it was hard not to stare at her overlong nose. At close range, her impossibly clear blue eyes are too penetrating to look into for long without blinking. In a second, it is clear that a powerful woman is speaking.
Bausch told the curious young dancers, very simply, "First you follow your plan and then you follow your feelings."
That jibes with what has come before in her repertoire and suggests reason for great expectations from Nur Du. Notices from its world premiere in Berkeley last month were ecstatic. The New York Times critic called it "one of her most ambitious and richly imaginative works."
Quite possibly, Valley dance fans may have their old ideas of what dance is expanded Thursday night.
Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal is scheduled to perform Nur Du (Only You) on Thursday, October 17, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Showtime is 7 p.m.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.