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Jack Anderson

Bausch's Ode to Istanbul


Rainer Behr. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: "Nefés"
Next Wave Festival
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Dec. 8-9, 14-16 at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 10 at 3 p.m.; Dec. 12 at 7 p.m., $85, $75, $50, $25
Tickets: (718) 636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Dec. 9, 2006


That's not a word often applied to Pina Bausch's choreography. Her works can easily be called powerful, scathing, satiric, and yes, at times, compassionate. But gorgeous? How many are gorgeous?

"Nefés" is. And one of the most remarkable things about it is that it looks gorgeous with only minimal scenic splendor, for most of it happens on a bare stage. It's the choreography that's gorgeous.

This ode to Istanbul, which received its world premiere in Wuppertal in 2003, is based on a residency Bausch's company had in the Turkish city the previous year, and ranks among what might be termed her choreographic travelogues: productions offering impressions of such places as Sicily, California, Hong Kong, and Brazil. Istanbul obviously enchanted Bausch. "Nefés," which is the Turkish word for "breath," begins with a scene in a Turkish bath during which men stretch out and good-naturedly massage one another. Later, women enter, shaking their long flowing hair. Bausch thereby introduces two of the work's major motifs: water and hair.

The flow of both is reflected choreographically throughout this piece which lasts almost three hours and, like many Bausch productions, is danced to a musical collage. There is much Turkish music, as might be expected, but other sources range from Tom Waits to Astor Piazzolla.

Although there is a cast of 20 attractive and mostly young-looking dancers, there are few large ensembles. Instead, Bausch presents a seemingly endless series of solos and duets, most of them gorgeous. There are passages of sharp sparkling steps. More often, however, movements are fluid, curving, and unabashedly sensuous. Feet glide, arms undulate, and hands and fingers assume delicate shapes.

Andrey Berezin, Shantala Shivalingappa and Pascal Merighi. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Many images evoke abundance and pleasure. Feasts occur throughout the piece, some of them elaborate. Yet there is also a moment when two women simply dip what looks like bread into what may be honey, and find the taste delightful. In one scene, women cross the stage, each with two men at her side rustling her gown as if they were human zephyrs. A man expresses his love for a woman with ardent throbbing movements while she happily scampers to and fro. A woman seems to give birth to a whole tribe of people emerging from beneath her skirt. There are several bits of choreographic playfulness, including a solo in which a man whizzes across the floor, hops onto a desk, slides across its top, and tumbles back to the ground.

Hair almost always appears luxurious, especially in a scene in which men approach a line of women whose long hair covers their faces like veils. But these are seductive veils, and when the women toss their hair back to reveal their faces, everyone is radiant.

Water is present throughout much of "Nefés." A pool at stage center gradually fills with water and, perhaps to remind spectators that Istanbul is a city on two continents separated by water, there is an episode in which women at either side of the pool have a sort of tea party by floating a tray back and forth across it.

Peter Pabst's usually austere designs occasionally burst with elaborate surprises. A real waterfall suddenly cascades across the back of the stage near the end of the first act. In the second, a curtain fills with video images of an enormous expanse of water, while real people gather before it as if having a picnic alongside the Bosphorus.

It is probably a happy accident that Bausch visited Istanbul when she did, for who knows what she might have devised had she gone there only slightly later. "Nefés" is remarkably free of images suggesting such increasingly nagging matters as terrorism, censorship, sexual oppression, and tensions between forces of secular tolerance and religious fundamentalism. True, there is a solo in which a man races and collapses into the pool, only to pick himself up and shake himself off. Yet, although the choreography suggests urgency here, it alludes to no specific issue.

The greatest difficulties Bausch's characters face come when the screen swells with video images of streets crowded with gargantuan trucks, cars, and buses that constantly threaten to run over these helpless little people. How wonderful it would be if a city's only major social problems involved nothing but traffic congestion.

"Nefés" is therefore something of a romanticized travelogue. Nevertheless, it does express hope that the breath of life may keep blowing through Istanbul and, by implication, every city.

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