Feature: Two Cigarettes in the Dark - two views on Pina Bausch

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch 'Two Cigarettes in the Dark' Dominique Mercy & Helena Pikon. Photo: Bettina Strenske

More than with any other dancemaker, it seems responses to Pina Bausch works are as many and as varied as the individuals who experience them. Everyone comes away with their own unique set of images, memories and interpretations of things which have moved or perplexed them. With that in mind, we sent two writers to see Two Cigarettes in the Dark at Sadler’s Wells last week…

Sanjoy Roy: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch is back in London after last year’s mammoth World Cities season, and once again it struck me that Bausch has a cult following as well as a critical one. Cult status is a combination of factors. Fandom, of course, but a niche type of fandom: only converts and insiders really “get it”. Then, just as cult fiction often constructs an imaginary world with its own rules, so does Planet Bausch, however baffling it appears, offer a certain coherence. Whatever hand you’re dealt, you can bet that some of the cards come from a certain deck: formal wear, “environmental” sets, obsessive repetitions, non-sequiturs, salon songs, and so on. Then there’s the spectator’s emotional identification with and devotion to the cult object, which Bausch certainly facilitates, her performers frequently reappearing as “themselves” through whole cycles of work and often engaging directly with audience members.
So, that’s what struck me first: Bausch puts the cult into culture. How about you, Jeffrey?

Jeffrey Gordon Baker: Yes, the mega-fans and critical insiders will always recognise and feel at home in the Bausch-ian universe. After last summer’s Cities pieces it’s interesting to consider one of her works that pre-dates them, that could said to be “pure” Bausch as it were, as a way to better understand the concerns that span her entire oeuvre. In doing so it occurs to me that since the early ‘80s, with some variations to the recipe here and there, she and her Tanztheater Wuppertal family have not exactly been making the same piece over and over, but rather one very long piece, cutting it up almost arbitrarily into evening-length portions. The bits inspired by cities, the cast and set changes; these are like flavour variations, new combinations of spices added to what has always been the main meal. The tricky (maybe impossible!) question to answer, is just what makes Bausch’s work so perennially compelling, and also so confounding. I think Two Cigarettes in the Dark, especially seen in the wake of the World Cities season, illustrates this juicy conundrum well.

SR: I think the compelling/confounding question gets to the heart of the matter: with Bausch, the slash between those two words is paper-thin! Perhaps that’s especially true with Two Cigarettes, with its surreal non-sequiturs (life-size cow appears from nowhere, then disappears forever), and its wilful banality (when the women slide down a chute, your mind practically starts singing ‘Is that all there is?’ to compensate for the disappointment of the ride). Two Cigarettes confounds you because you could never say what the piece is “about”, or even that it is “about” anything. Instead, images and actions accumulate – and sometimes, they really drag. Overall, you connect with some more than others. You connect some with others. And in that process, you don’t so much form a picture of the work’s “identity” as form a relationship with it. That can be extremely compelling because you, personally, become part of the loop.

JGB: I agree about not being able to grasp the identity of the piece. Bausch sometimes referred to her works as “evenings”, a terminology that implies a personal experience over time rather than an artwork with an interpretable meaning. Even if you didn’t “get” parts of the Cities pieces, you could at least tell your friends you saw a weird dance show about Istanbul or Rome. The vignettes in Two Cigarettes are more unsettling for their apparent lack of any such thematic through-line. As usual, however, Peter Pabst’s sets do serve to locate the action in some fantastic neverwhere. But the box of institutional white walls and floor, and huge picture windows onto landscapes of an “outside world” provide more of a physical circumstance – as opposed to a narrative setting – in which we (the dancers and us) find ourselves confined. A stringy-haired, manic Helena Pikon flails about desperately with her dress falling off, and rushes for the door only to be beaten back by Dominque Mercy’s clipboard. It’s Pina and company in the asylum, where any madness comic or cruel can happen, where you can check out (several audience members did just that, exiting before the 2 hours, 35 minutes was up) but you can never leave.

SR: I didn’t check out, but I didn’t exactly check in – at least, not until well into the second half, and after that I was hooked. It was at the very point at which a number of spectators gave up on the piece altogether. The shutters have already come down on the windows, so now the whole room is enclosed in white. Most other scenes featured musical fragments; this one plays through the entire 13 or so minutes of Ravel’s La Valse , the closest the composer ever got to a kind of demonic ecstasy. While the music churns, swoops, dives and shatters, a line of four couples do almost nothing but shuffle, very slowly, on their bottoms. With excruciating slowness and devastating inevitability, the human train ends in a pile-up at the foot of a door, where they fail to reach the exit-handle. They turn back and eventually pile pointlessly into the opposite wall, where there isn’t even a door. A waiter brings them drinks, and they shuffle into each other. Ravel’s score is essentially a protracted battle between melody and rhythm – and guess which wins? Melody – flight, continuity, the upper realm – ends smashed to smithereens by the base/bass wrecking ball of the bottom line: rhythm. As the music dramatises these grand forces at play, the four couples, arduously shuffle-bumming around the stage, reveal their own bottom line: this is an aimless, rudderless journey made by a ship of fools but hey, that’s life. Brilliant. Crushingly, unflinchingly brilliant.

JGB: The scenes of playful futility like the one you describe – be they Sartrean No Exit scenarios or the pitiful games of patients in the rec. room of the institution – are more than just metaphors. For my money the best Bausch is the darkest Bausch, heaven and earth is one take on it, but hell or more specifically, hell-as-other-people is more like it. But oh what a glamorous hell it is! The husky, smokey voiced Mechthild Großmann seems to be our mistress of ceremonies in this clinical netherworld. She frequently trots jauntily downstage centre to directly address the audience, including the opening image in which she grins and welcomes us with open arms saying, “Come in, my husband is at war.” Right from the start she indicates that we’re all in this together, and her statements almost always implicate us in the knowledge of lurid violence, from the rape of an angel to an anecdote about a husband who kills his wife, only for her to beg him to “do it some more.” Großmann herself shoots and kills two lovers rolling around in the bushes outside the upstage window. Her character could simply be enjoyed or dismissed as comic relief, but when she stares right into the faces of the audience as she casually burns holes in her satin dress with a cigarette, she seems to be mocking our complacency as passive observers.

SR: I think with Bausch you can’t really be a passive observer. Or at least: you get more out of it if you put something into it. That is very true of Two Cigarettes, which I think really does test patience with its confounded games, and you need to be inventive in finding your way through it. And of course, in that process, it offers a mirror to your self. For example: you thought of the white room as a kind of asylum, perhaps because you happen to work a lot with social institutions. Whereas my image was of human existence caught between ground reality and a higher plane (earth and heaven, if you like) – and perhaps that’s because of my ingrained atheism. Here is reality: the stark white room of human interaction, flanked by three windows through which we see a fish tank, lush foliage and barren sand: sea, forest, desert. Nature outside, society inside. The “upper level” is all unachieved aspiration and failed fantasy: Aida Vainieri sits on a carpet shouting spells that fail to make it fly; Eddie Martinez bounds heavily, a big bird failing to get airborne; Franko Schmidt spins a coat hanger on his head, failing to helicopter upwards. There is a lot of sacred/profane imagery, sometimes in the music, more explicitly when Martinez flutters cherub-wing hands behind Julie Shanahan’s shoulders and points devil-horn fingers over her head; more explicitly still when Mechthild Großmann delivers dry instructions on “how to fuck an angel”. Shanahan sits like a statuesque idol while Schmidt proffers his yogic body before her supreme indifference. In the final scene, Michael Strecker sprays himself entirely white, as if turning himself into an angel – or to stone. Either way, he erases his human self. It’s both a death and an escape.

JGB: There is indeed something personal about Bausch’s work, as you say, her world is like a cult in that her devoted fans identify emotionally and individually with what’s repeatedly presented. It’s hard stuff to shake off, whether you “enjoy” it or not. Bausch was an expert in administering what a reformed prostitute in the Samuel Fuller film of the same name calls “The Naked Kiss”, the kiss of the pervert, who knows and exploits your hidden desires in moments of intimacy. And what is more intimate than a night at the theatre? We saw Two Cigarettes on Valentine’s Day, and as I was walking out I eavesdropped on a young couple who seemed to be on a date; they were all dressed up, he in a suit and she in heels and an elegant evening dress, ironically clad like Bausch performers themselves. The woman was distressed, maybe she had a bit too much bubbly at the bar: “I don’t care! I don’t care! I don’t care how you explain all the little bits, I didn’t like it! I hated it!” she hissed. She was nearly in tears as her date shook his head in disappointed disbelief. There is something to be said for an artist whose work can produce such polarising reactions. In the hard hitting Bausch pieces of which Two Cigarettes is a quintessential example, you can guarantee that there will be some who walk out and others who have one of the most remarkable experiences with dance of their lifetimes.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch continue their short season at Sadler’s Wells with Vollmond (Full Moon) 22 – 25 February 2013.
Return tickets only: www.sadlerswells.com
T: 0844 412 4300

Sanjoy Roy writes about dance for the Guardian, New Statesman, Dance Gazette, Dancing Times and Pulse.
Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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