Dance Fever

The doyenne of dance theater, Pina Bausch, first came to the Valley during a 1996 tour of Nur Du (Only You) with her Tanztheater Wuppertal. During that same tour, Newsweek called Bausch the world's most influential, and most controversial, choreographer. Indeed, she's been provoking imitators and gasps ever since she became director of the German company in 1973.

ASU's Gammage Auditorium brings her back to the Valley with her signature piece, Nelken (Carnations), on October 22. The two-hour 1984 work is famous for the thousands of pink silk carnations that poke up through the stage floor only to be crushed beneath the dancers' feet. Bausch once said Carnations is about first times and first loves, and it has been called more lighthearted than her thirty-some other works. But there's much more going on. You don't often see 15 women and men in cocktail dresses enraptured from entwining their tootsies in flowers while being guarded by men with dogs straining at their leashes.

One of those dancers, Dominique Mercy, has been with Bausch from the beginning. Blond, wry-looking, and with a Gallic nose, he can shift from vaudevillian to villain with ballistic speed. Reached by phone last weekend in L.A., Mercy said he stays with Bausch because "there is still this way of looking for what we look for, without knowing what we look for." He describes it as being disponable -- arranging (or disarranging) things until they seem to fit.

During the company's first desert visit, I decided to invite Bausch to the Yaqui town of Guadalupe, as her longtime set designer, Peter Pabst, had included the Virgin of Guadalupe's image among the dozens of objects that furnished that tour's set.

When we pulled up to the Yaqui temple, with its doors yawning and candles flickering on the dirt floor under the images of the Virgin, a town resident followed us in. Introduced to Bausch, he said "I, too, am a dancer. I am Richard A. Valencia, head of the Matachini Yaqui dancers. I have 12 dancers. How many do you have?" Her hands crossed apologetically as she bowed slightly, tipping her head as if to shorten herself to his height. "I have 28."

Bausch's fame preceded her at another stop on her Arizona tour, Leon's Western Wear. Mr. Leon said, "Of course, Wuppertal." Bausch was flabbergasted. "You know it?"

"Yes, my daughter is a choreographer at UCLA. My wife and I took her to Germany."

It was time to get Bausch back, and I started rushing her. But she spied a basket of Mexican paper flowers and wanted a souvenir. Mr. Leon gallantly flung the hundreds of flowers at her feet. Kneeling among them, she picked the colors she wanted and we were soon back in the plaza.

As I finish telling this story to Dominique Mercy, he says, "Nelken is like that. Like going through a little journey with little stops along the way. We make theater out of life."

Tanztheater Wuppertal with Pina Bausch is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Friday, October 22, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Tickets are $29, $15, $9 and $5. Call 480-965-3434 or 480-503-5555 for details.

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