Ask a dancer under 30 in Europe about Pina Bausch, and most likely you'll get a blank stare or a shrug. You might as well mention Isadora Duncan or Martha Graham. Important, yes; relevant, no. For them, Bausch, the most radical innovator of European dance in the past three decades, is passé. But stateside that's not the case, judging by the many dancers who mingled with the older crowd during Cal Performances' recent Bausch engagement, her first since a 1997 appearance showcasing the California-inspired Nur Du (Only You).
Part of the reserved reception Bausch receives overseas may be due to prophet-in-her-own-land syndrome. And another part may relate to the revolutionary aspect of her work; once a revolution is institutionalized, it loses its punch. And some of it may simply be a function of aging. Not all artists produce major works in their seventh decade. Bausch is 67.
Although people have complained for years that "there is no dancing" in Bausch's productions, there was plenty in her 2004 Ten Chi, and it was heroic. These dancers had the physical and emotional training to be ferocious and lyrical, plangent and athletic, sometimes all within the same couple of phrases. They lived off momentum, introspection, and one another. And every one of them was an individual, though they all had that Bauschian stare.
Even longtime company members Helena Pikon, Julie Shanahan, and
Julie Anne Stanzak danced better than ever. As for Dominique Mercy, who has been with Bausch since 1973, his sad-sack clown is getting more ethereal every year, yet he'll whip himself around the stage with the best of them. He has also given the company something else: his daughter, Thusnelda Mercy, who along with the rest of the women dances on heels that are a lot higher than Ginger Rogers's. High heels are Bausch's pointe shoes, icons of femininity that radically shift the body's center of gravity.
Ten Chi is one of Bausch's better travel pieces, for which she visits a country or a city to gather information, which she and her dancers then incorporate into one of her meandering colossal collages, integrating culture-specific material into a much larger whole. In the impressive Ten Chi, Azusa Seyama, who is Japanese, gave head-bobbing lessons in proper behavior to Ditta Miranda. She also turned herself into a grinning paparazza, snapping pictures of a nonplussed Pascal Merighi. These scenes started out as high comedy, but Bausch pushed them to the point where they turned into something much darker.
It was this underbelly that redeemed much of Ten Chi's surface frivolity. Beneath the distinct and sometimes very funny episodes, Bausch and her exceptional set designer Peter Pabst infused a slowly growing sense of dread. Initially, the innocuously falling "cherry blossoms" looked pretty, but as they accumulated, the scene transformed into something akin to an eternal winter. Concurrently, in a brilliant stroke of optical illusion, the tail of a huge whale suggested that an animal was about to rise from the deep. Think Moby-Dick, think wars, think the unconscious. In the prolonged finale the dancers returned individually. They threw themselves into hair-raising contortions, whipping turns, and slithery slides. And they did it again and again and again, until I wanted to scream, "Stop it! Enough!" which is exactly what Bausch intended. *