So at the start of “Café Müller,” when the lights slowly dawned on a stage strewn with cafe chairs and Helena Pikon (who resembles Bausch physically) wandered around in a slip with her eyes closed and her palms up, in Bausch’s role, many in the audience must have wondered if they were seeing a ghost. Others, seeing the work live for the first time, may have struggled, as I did, to experience it through all the intervening layers of history.
“The Rite of Spring,” a more conventional dance work, is easier to process. The Stravinsky score carries its own legends, of course, and more choreographed interpretations than just about any other piece of music. But this baggage isn’t specifically Bauschian, and the ordinariness of her take — it’s basically a battle of the sexes — helps expose her traditional skills of choreographic shape and dramatic tension.
The stage floor is covered in dirt. As the masses of sweating, heavily breathing dancers — usually, but not always, separated by gender — punch themselves in the gut and kick up dust, the audience experience is like being close to a stampede. It’s live, visceral theater, something you can’t get in those films. Faithful to the dramatic pacing of the dominating score, the choreography gives a strong impression of an inexorable ritual, a world without free will.
“Café Müller,” though, is much more representative of what came to be known as Bauschian tanztheater (or dance theater). In silence and to the tragic sound of Purcell arias, six characters come and go, bumping into the furniture and slamming into the walls.
The most famous feature here is repetition. A man and a woman embrace, then another man manipulates them into a different embrace, but they reset into the first one, so the puppet master puts them back as he wants — and the cycle repeats over and over. When the process accelerates, the effect is comic, but the underlying point about the force of habit, reiterated through the work, is grim.
The psychology is recognizable, as is the adeptness of the composition. So why does it leave me cold? Critics of Bausch often concede her technical mastery only to complain about her message, usually her view of men and women. And the world depicted in “Café Müller” does strike me as reductive, too similar to the fatalism of “Rite.” But that’s after-the-fact analysis. Bausch’s art, so personal to her and her dancers, was to find gestures that stick in your memory; whether they prick your emotions is a personal matter, too.
What touched me in “Café Müller” was the 62-year-old Nazareth Panadero as the woman who skitters around bewildered in heels, a role she has been performing for more than three decades. The little hip-twisting dance she does felt like a sweet memory, but it was something that no one could have seen in 1984. Here the layers of history didn’t distance me from the experience. They drew me closer.
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