When you see upwards of 100 performances a year, as I did for many, many years, it’s not always easy to remember where or when you saw what, who was in it, or what it was about. But there are a few things that stand out as such extraordinary performances they cannot be forgotten. For me one of these took place in the summer of 1983 when I went to France for the first time on behalf of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) where I was working as publicity director at the time. The central part of the trip was the Avignon Festival, where choreographers Pina Bausch and Carolyn Carlson were performing; both had imminent engagements at BAM, where Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal is performing Kontakthof through November 2, 2014.
Seeing Pina Bausch’s Nelken in Avignon on a hot summer night in 1983 was absolutely extraordinary. It was my first time seeing anything in the central courtyard of the 14th-century Palais des Papes with its massive, high walls of medieval stone. Imagine walking in to such a historic setting and seeing the entire stage covered with thousands of pink carnations—the scenic design by Peter Pabst (my Jan. 2013 interview with Pabst, Part I), one of Bausch’s longtime collaborators from that production forward.
Around the perimeter of the stage and the field of carnations were six German shepherd guard dogs and their handlers, a stark contrast to the innocence of the flowers. One of the unforgettable lead performers was Lutz Forster, who today serves as artistic director of the company.
Bausch’s company has performed at BAM many times over the past three decades, since I first saw them in Avignon, and Pabst’s scenic designs always play a major role. For Aria, the stage is covered with water including an upstage pool for a hippopotamus—actually two dancers in a rather real looking costume as I had to explain to the SPCA who called the day after opening night at BAM, a performance made memorable by the fact that the first water that was delivered had been tainted by chemicals in the truck. The second delivery had to be heated to a comfortable temperature for the dancers, causing more than an hour’s delay for the cutain to rise.
For other works, Pabst has covered the stage with live grass and peat, rushing water (Vollmond), or a floor that moves apart mechanically, giving each piece a signature design. Kontakhof is one of Bausch’s earlier pieces, dating from 1978, with set and costume design by Rolf Borzik, and additional costume design by Marion Cito. It takes place in a rather drab, municipal ballroom with black chairs set around the room, and a “stage” on the upstage wall with a curtain that opens to reveal a movie screen where a 16mm documentary about ducks in shown as the dancers sit in a row, with their back to the audience to watch the film.
Aptly described as “a chorus line of awkward seductions, unease, and discomfort,” Kontakthof (courtyard of contact) strips away layers of social artifice as 23 dancers couple and uncouple, revealing their insecurities—and even their teeth—in the process, as if uncomfortable with each other at a school dance. The women change dresses frequently, from bright solid-color cocktail dresses to all pink then all black, which in the final moment of the piece make them seem more sophisticated and less vulnerable perhaps. Younger dancers have replaced the original company, but Kontakthof is as emotionally wrought, relevant, and oddly funny today as it was over 30 years ago. This is classic Pina Bausch and it has not tarnished with age.