‘What else do you want to see?’ the man in a black evening dress, undone at the back, yells at the audience in Adelaide’s Festival Theatre. ‘I can show you anything! You want to see tour en l’air? Okay? Okay! Look at this. Tour en l’air!’
Leaping into the air, spinning his body around in a tight turn he screams ‘There! Tour en l’air,’ before landing precisely on bent knee in a field of pink carnations, worn and leaning towards the stage. ‘And voilà!’ he says, with a flick of the wrists. You came here to see dance? he challenges the audience. We can dance.
Pina Bausch’s Nelken (Carnations) premiered in Munich in 1983, and made its long-awaited Australian premiere at this year’s Adelaide Festival of Arts. This appearance marked Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s first Australian performance in sixteen years, and first Adelaide performance since 1982 – when the company was based in West Germany, and was billed in the festival program under theatre instead of dance. Calling it dance, perhaps, was a bit too much for Adelaide’s audiences.
As a young choreographer in the 1970s, Bausch (1940–2009) was radical and pioneering in the art form of tanztheater – or, as it literally translates, dance theatre: a blending of dance with elements of language and text, with props and other performative elements. Australia now has a strong tradition of choreographers working in dance theatre – including Meryl Tankard, who worked with Bausch before returning to Australia and working with a whole new generation of artists. What’s most remarkable, then, about Nelken is that 33 years after its premiere it feels, if no longer radical, still resolutely fresh and contemporary.
And yet, as pairs and groups rose to leave throughout the evening on opening night, with no discernable methodology to this choice – perhaps because they thought the work was too long, perhaps this wasn’t the sort of dance work they had anticipated – Bausch’s work may still be too radical for some.
There is a great sense of joy, beauty, and play to Nelken, which Bausch finds in the strangest moments: the poignant charm of dancers sitting in office chairs in a field of carnations; women dancing on their hands and feet beneath a wooden table; men wearing evening gowns with pure delight – a commentary on the freedom this clothing choice brings, rather than, as we see too often in dance, a chance to laugh at the idea that a man would dare wear a dress.
Bausch’s world also explores darkness, politics, and pain. Men are forced to conform by wearing dinner suits. A woman sits at a table as three thugs come towards her. A man orders people to show him their passports, and subjects them to humiliation before he will hand them back. This commentary on the divided Germany of the 1980s now stings sharply in the face of refugee migration in 2016.
It’s not just its politics and feminism that make Nelken feel contemporary: the design and choreography, too, feel fresh – particularly in the tirelessness of the dancers, some of whom have been with the company since before Nelken’s debut.
Much of the work is inexplicable: moments of quiet leaning towards tedium, fragments of images that are haunting and yet nonsensical. It’s about feeling these images, as Bausch captures the elements of hope within human relationships, before breaking this hope apart.
But what I found most captivating in Nelken was Bausch’s beautifully assured arrogance. Running 120 minutes without an interval, with many long scenes of stillness or repetition, she is demanding of her audience. Although there were many influential female chorographers in the last century, choreography, like most art forms, continues to be male-dominated, and that gender disparity was even more acute in the 1980s. For Bausch to say to her audience: I am a woman, I have made two hours of performance, and you are going to sit there and experience everything I want to say, feels like an act of extreme bravado.
Bausch’s work makes no apologies for this arrogance, nor does it need to. When you give yourself over to her vision, its power is overwhelming.
An arts festival can sink or swim by the quality of its individual works, but it is often more interesting to consider them as curated wholes. One of the most inspired pieces of programming in David Sefton’s 2016 Adelaide Festival was having Atlanta Eke play opposite Pina Bausch over the festival’s final weekend. If Bausch was interested in exploring beyond the limits of dance in 1980s West Germany, that is precisely what Eke’s work explores in Australia today.
Body of Work, which premiered at the 2015 Dance Massive festival in Melbourne, sees Eke walking down the steps of the Space Theatre’s seating bank dressed – of course – as a couch. Like something out of Star Trek, she lumbers forward and onto the stage. In the audience we giggle, unsure what to make of this.
The rest of the show is equally inexplicable: in silver lycra crop-top and pants, she is something alien, otherworldly. Paint in her hands, she covers her skin in white, pushing up against her forehead and into her hair. As she curves her back into a seemingly uncontrollable contraction, blue dye falls out of her mouth, coating her chin and dribbling down over her body. Camera focused on a screen, she plays with the endless mirroring effect this creates. Delaying the time between her movements and the projected video, lighting states create an endless stream of varicoloured Ekes, all looking back at each other.
Bausch and Eke are worlds apart: decades and continents separate their practice. Where Bausch explored the nexus of dance and theatre, Eke considers the potential overlap between dance and visual art. Bausch worked with a large permanent ensemble of dancers, Eke performs solo or with a small and shifting group of collaborators. If the two hours of Bausch’s Nelken intentionally stretch her audience’s time commitment, Eke’s Body of Work is punchy and short, releasing the audience after just 45 minutes.
And still, playing side by side at Adelaide Festival, strands connect the two choreographers and their work. Drawn to Bausch’s arrogance, I couldn’t help but see some of that same arrogance in Eke. The title Body of Work likely refers here to the centering of the body and its physical capabilities in Eke’s practice, but also to the way she juxtaposes her physical self against the real-time documentation and manipulation of her recorded self through the video projections: a body of work is created in the moment, every night. Of course, typically we hear the phrase ‘body of work’ in regards to retrospectives of an old, great artist’s lifelong oeuvre. In so-naming this performance, Eke, still in the early stages of her career, firmly places herself as an artist of significance.
This same beautiful arrogance is also present in the sheer incomprehensibility of it all. Aesthetically, you can draw inferences about Eke’s influences, but she leaves the meaning abstract: this is dance that operates in the ephemeral and conceptual.
As a dance critic, it felt particularly special to be seeing both of these artists in the one festival: finally seeing Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and filling in the parts of cultural history I’ve missed, and revisiting the work of Atlanta Eke and considering the possibilities of Australian dance into the future. Both women have crafted their careers as wholly idiosyncratic individuals, in conversation with their contemporaries in Europe or Australia, but simultaneously extending the boundaries of what we can consider dance to be. After 33 years, Bausch’s work remains shockingly emotive and strongly contemporary, and now Eke is the new radical.