THE PINA BAUSCH phenomenon raises profoundly disquieting questions--age old but ever new--about the relationship between art and morality. To what extent can a work of art traffic in evil and remain free of taint? Where does fascination end and addiction begin? Bausch's powerful, hauntingly morbid and controversial creations oscillate across these hairline distinctions to nerve-racking effect. What looks starkly brilliant, insightful and searing at one moment seems drastically repellent in the next.
Bausch is a 43-year-old dancer-choreographer whose Wuppertal Dance Theater from West Germany has been the rage of the European avant-garde for the past decade. Preceded by a barrage of chichi publicity, including picture stories of her scantily clad troupe in Vogue and Vanity Fair, Bausch opened the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles at the start of this month. Tonight the group completes a two-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it made its New York debut June 12. A week's engagement at the Toronto International Festival will be the troupe's last stop on this first North American tour.
On the whole, the fanfare seems justified--firsthand contact with the performances makes it easy to understand how the Bausch mystique could enthrall a continent. The three samples of Wuppertal repertory I saw in Brooklyn last week--"Cafe Mu ller" (1978) and "The Rite of Spring" on one bill, and the two-hour, uninterrupted "Bluebeard" on another--were sure in craft, riveting in imagery, provocative in conception and wholly uncompromising in their decadent vision. On the other hand, the thread of the sinister coiled through all three works like a cobra poised to strike, and in the end one was hard pressed to know whether to feel more intrigued or frightened.
Of the three, "The Rite of Spring" is not only the oldest but also the most "conventional" work in modern dance terms. Set to the Stravinsky score, it's a more or less straightforward, if heavily stylized, version of a primitive sacrifical ritual, for 29 dancers. The red scarf as a blood symbol, the unison stomping and pumping, the bodily swings and weight shifts point to the American modern dance tradition Bausch absorbed as a student and performer here in the early '60s.
The images of mass sexual hysteria, the bared female breasts and the group gropes are further indications of the theater-dance esthetics of that era, culled from both American and the older German expressionist sources so conspicuous in Bausch's later work, as well as such possible continental influences as the work of Maurice Bejart. There are also distinctive Bauschian touches--the recurrent theme of woman as victim for one; the decidedly Germanic recording of the Stravinsky (it almost sounded like Wagner) used as accompaniment; and the "de'cor" by Rolf Borzik (Bausch's longtime collaborator and companion, who died in 1980) covering the stage floor with damp earth.
"Cafe Mu ller" is far more typical of Bausch's recent methods, and more doggedly expressionist. In Borzik's oppressively bare, white room, the pallid, gaunt Bausch (it's the only role she still dances) moves like a somnambulist through tableaux involving five other dancers, who vacillate between enervation and violent, erotic eruption. Couples lock into fervid embrace, only to slip into limp vacancy. Dancers slam themselves brutally against the walls, hug them and crumple slowly to the floor. One man charges repeatedly through the room, kicking and overturning the black chairs that litter the floor--seemingly on the verge of mayhem, he suddenly goes slack and stands staring blankly at the others.
The piece is said to be autobiographical--Bausch's parents ran a cabaret in a small, drab town in the Ruhr valley not far from Wuppertal. But the impression is one of life as a madhouse for catatonic or bestial inmates. Arias from Purcell operas intermittently underline the action.
The uses of obsessive, slowly varying repetition, collagist imagery, and extremes of apathy and violence are more prominent still in the most virulent of the works, "Bluebeard, Listening to a Tape Recording of Be'la Barto'k's Opera 'Bluebeard's Castle,' " to give its full appellation. The piece has no clear-cut narrative, but employs the Bluebeard tale as a peg; the two highlighted characters are Bluebeard (somberly bearish Jan Minarik) and his last wife-victim (Beatrice Libonati), who are joined sporadically by chains or clusters of 25 other men and women.
The work can be read as an indictment of male domination--in effect, it's an exhaustive catalogue of ways men enslave, torture and otherwise abuse women, in scenes cued by Bluebeard's starting and stopping of a tape recorder. Here Borzik has strewn the floor with dead leaves, through which the dancers shuffle like crazed rats.
Bluebeard's behavior is often mimicked by the ensemble. In addition to raping the wife and forcing her to other sexual acts, he shoves her by the head, drags her on the floor, hurls her into the wall, spanks her bottom, sits on her, and copulates with other women--and a man--in front of her. She, on her part, keeps coming back for more, even helping him out of a stupor to get him started again, continually prostrating herself before him and the other men as well. Other images include a row of grinning men stripped to briefs, rippling their muscles as women massage and caress them, and an errant array of babbling women braiding their hair, like a stageful of Ophelias.
Much of the force of the performances--despite the often lethargic tempos and the brooding repetitions--derives from the overwhelming sense of commitment of the Wuppertal dancers. Membership in the Bausch troupe--the personnel come from many different nations and few leave once they've joined--has an aspect of monastic dedication. In composing her works, Bausch probes the private memories and psyches of her dancers for raw material, and some of this reaches the stage in undiluted form. Bausch and her dancers regard themselves as a collective--there are solo parts, but no star billings, and the abstract anonymity of most of the roles Bausch devises adds to the aura of an nonhierarchical commune of artists.
Bausch herself, born in Solingen in 1940, had her early dance studies with the great German expressionist pioneer Kurt Jooss, starting at the age of 15. In 1960, she came to New York's Juilliard School, where she continued her studies with Jose' Limo'n and Antony Tudor, among others, and danced with Paul Sanasardo's troupe and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Returning to Germany in 1962, she joined Jooss' reconstituted Folkwang Ballet in Essen, and also, by the late '60s, began herself to make dances. In 1973, she was appointed director of the Wuppertal Dance Theater, and there evolved the highly individual brand of multimedia dance that catapulted her to the ranks of Europe's leading contemporary choreographers.
It must be kept in mind that the troupe's touring repertory constitutes only a small portion of Bausch's output. From reviews and descriptions, however, one gathers that "Cafe Mu ller" and "Bluebeard" are fairly representative of the tone, content and direction of Bausch's recent creations. What's so deeply disturbing about these works is not their unmistakable Germanic stamp, per se. After all, Bausch links up in her own way with an artistic legacy that includes, for example, Franz Schubert, who wrote possibly the most guileless, tenderest and warmest-hearted music in all of the western canon, as well as Alban Berg, who treated some of the same decadence and despair that engage Bausch's imagination, but from an unswervingly compassionate standpoint.
Nor is it the sex and violence, in themselves, that give one pause. We forget, perhaps, the dance and theater scene of the '60s, when the Living Theater was in high gear, when Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty notions were a pervasive influence, when playwrights like Fernando Arrabal and Eugenio Barba were jolting us with one shock after another, and when our avant-garde stages not uncommonly enframed live fornication, the slaughtering of animals, the projection of pornographic films and even excremental acts. To a world inflamed by the savageries of Vietnam, Third World upheavals, assassinations, riots and terrorism, theatrical obscenity and depravity seemed but a mirror of the times.
Beside all this, Pina Bausch's extremism appears almost tame. It's something else, something almost subliminal that torments us about her depictions of anomie and corruption. It's a quality perhaps best captured by Thomas Mann in the fiendish character of Leo Naphta of "The Magic Mountain" and exaggerated still further in the protagonist of "Doktor Faustus"--a specifically Teutonic attraction to the powers of darkness, to an alliance of art, disease and malevolence.
In fact, the tradition with which Bausch would seem most closely identified is that of German expressionist film, from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" in 1919, through the masterpieces of Murnau ("Nosferatu"), Fritz Lang ("Die Nibelungen," "Metropolis") and G.W. Pabst ("Pandora's Box"), to the paradoxically magnificent and corrupt work of Leni Riefenstahl and, finally, to the misanthropic nihilism of the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The title page of Lotte Eisner's "The Haunted Screen," a classic study of German expressionist film, bears a quote from a Leopold Ziegler, writing in 1925: "German man is the supreme example of demoniac man. Demoniac indeed seems the abyss which cannot be filled, the yearning which cannot be assuaged, the thirst which cannot be slaked . . ." Eisler assures us that Ziegler meant "demoniac" in the "Greek sense," meaning "pertaining to the nature of supernatural power," rather than in the English sense of "diabolical." All the same, it's the diabolical in Bausch's dance theater, along with her moral ambivalence toward it, that make one shiver.
Pina Bausch was 5 years old when the Nazis were defeated and Hitler committed suicide. Her dance mentor was Jooss, whose shatteringly moving antiwar ballet "The Green Table" (1932) was and remains one of the great humanist documents of the art. Nevertheless, each of Bausch's productions at Brooklyn inevitably stirred thoughts of the Holocaust--in the hollow, cadaverous eyes of the victims, the near-naked bodies, the look of a community of the damned, the wallowing in cruelty, the feeling of spiritual asphyxiation. Bausch's obsession with pathology seems all the more insidious for being, in all likelihood, mostly unconscious and unintentional in its implicit glorification of the barbaric--she may well believe she's merely exploring, as honestly as she can, the hidden nether sides of the human condition.
But there is a kind of unholy prurience about it, as there is with the punksters who've used Nazi uniforms, insignia and symbology as a weapon of cultural negation and aggression. In this light, Bausch appears as the Pandora of contemporary art, opening the forbidden lid and loosening, however innocently, noxious elements unfit for mortal breath or sight.
Art and artists, to be sure, should be free to ponder the imponderable, to consider the most heinous of sins and sinful instincts, to hold up the glass to the basest secrets of the human soul: how else can we truly know--or purge--them? But even art, unflinching as it dares to be, must be tempered by decency, by justice, by mercy, lest it become an accomplice in the very horrors it seeks to illuminate. The unsettling thing about Bausch's work, despite its originality and mastery, is that it leaves one unsure of where she stands in the moral spectrum.