Revisiting Pina Bausch: ‘Carnations’

Pina Bausch Dance Theater Wuppertal, Germany October 17.

PINA BAUSCH’S ‘Carnations' (photo credit: Courtesy)
PINA BAUSCH’S ‘Carnations'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It starts with a huge field of knee-high pink carnations on stage and ends with 2,000 downtrodden flowers.
Watching the work almost four decades after it premiered, it feels uneasy to read Carnations (Nelken) as a metaphor to what we’ve become, living with wrongs and violence as we shrug.
Bausch’s Carnations was often considered an homage to spring and hope. In hindsight, though, the spectacular blooming field being guarded by barely contained watchdogs stands out today as beyond dramatic caprice.
Pina Bausch was certainly one the more influential choreographers in the second half of the 20th century, developing a new expressionist dance theater that eventually helped to shutter modern dance’s traditional structures, opting to replace it with layered short scenes with flimsy ties.
Once she gave up linear dramatic build-up, as she did in one of her earliest works such as The Rite of Spring, she found freedom in carving emotional materials from herself and her dancers’ innards and turned them into impressive enigmatic offerings and visual and emotional suggestive riddles. While she supplied endless stimulations, the viewers needed to process the data and come out with their own interpretations.
This particular beloved piece was performed in Caesarea in 1991 during the company’s third tour of Israel. In many ways, one cannot say that it had changed much, although it feels like it did. Most of the scenes are there, numerous dancing parades, particularly the ingenious one in which the dancers repeatedly use symbolic moves and gestures to depict the four seasons while they sweetly smile at us, or the dancing scene on and under the long table.
It includes four stunt men jumping from great heights onto a pile of cardboard boxes and the mute rendition to Sophie Tucker’s “The Man I Love.” Some seemed too pale against the original troupe’s execution, mentored meticulously by Bausch, who died a decade ago.
But it’s probably more than that. The times have changed, and we live on much faster tracks now. Slow, loose and repetitious scenes such as the children’s game after a while felt like over-chewed gum. Add to that the fact that humor is not what it used to be. Slapping the next guy on his buttocks slapstick-style hardly tickles.
Contemporary dance, physical theater and performance art expanded beyond recognition the territory of what was called dance since Bausch ruled the art form in the 1970s and ‘80s. In a way, like ballet, she is – with respect – history.