The Pina Bausch Smorgasbord: Brooklyn’s Favorite Take-Away

Something’s always going on in a Pina Bausch extravaganza. In the old days, it was inevitably something grim-you felt that Bausch had internalized the malign mutterings of old Aunt Ada Doom in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm: “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” No more. Not that everything’s sweetness and light in the Pinaworld of today-guys slam each other to the ground; dominatrixes roam the land in slinky black, wielding outsize hairbrushes; coitus is interruptus. But on the whole, the goings-on are benign, and if you’re going to sit through almost three hours of one darn thing after another, it’s definitely easier to survive when you’re not under relentless attack.

The new (to New York) work, recently unveiled at B.A.M., is called Für die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen ( For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow). And there’s lots of kiddie stuff happening throughout, beginning with tiny Ditta Miranda Jasjfi, who looks like a doll and is tossed around and manipulated like a doll but is far from being a doll: When the going gets rough, she’s right in there with the rest of them. The look of the piece is impressive-a vast area all in white, with shifting walls and tremendous doors, and a black space at the back for a window. And what looks like a white linoleum floor. The costumes, by Marion Cito, are beautiful-particularly the long dresses, both floral and black, that the women assume (the costumes come and go, a recent and overused trend). Props are in constant supply.

The first (very long) section of Für die Kinder is a succession of riffs-either confrontations or solos, with occasional group activities. There’s the cigarette-lighter riff, the blowing-water riff, the “O’s are for hugs, X’s are for kisses” riff, the man-in-nothing-but-a-huge-billowy-white-tutu-with-a-watering-can riff, the climactic sand-castle riff. And there are shticks-mainly by the very funny (but not as funny as she thinks she is) Nazareth Panadero, who torments the poor fellow who just wants to hold her with her insatiable demands for flattery. (Yes, there’s a smattering of dialogue to jump-start things when dance invention flags.) Things follow each other pell-mell, but with no discernible (at least to me) pattern. And since there’s no through-story, either dramatically or musically (the score is a trendy hodgepodge, from Gerry Mulligan to the Baka Forest People), you’re left with nothing to hold you steady except the fun or frisson of the moment. Because Bausch is endlessly inventive, even ingenious, it doesn’t matter if the latest riff is less engaging than the last, because something else amusing is guaranteed to be on the way. But invention and ingenuity aren’t the same as interesting, and the satisfactions they provide don’t necessarily keep you satisfied for long. At the intermission, you’re both sated and hungry-it works like Chinese food.

But in the second section of Für die Kinder, repeated gestures and actions start adding up-repetition takes on force instead of being just a tic. A hand juddering beneath a breast, a woman biting at a man’s chin, the obsession with hair as the ladies in black grow more and more threatening with the violence of their brushing-these things begin to gather together and draw us in, and eventually they carry us to a climax a lot more satisfactory than the endless foreplay. (Let’s try to forget the solemnly narrated American-Indian myth about how the Squirrel rescues the Sun and gets changed into the Bat.)

And the dancers begin to look fulfilled, not merely effective. They’re a very disparate group, from the young men who vie with each other in their acrobatic zeal to the gorgeous, lyrical Azusa Seyama to baby-doll Jasjfi to willowy Melanie Maurin to the superb male veteran, Dominique Mercy, who gets more out of Bausch’s choreography than she puts in. They’re all absolutely dedicated, which isn’t surprising, since Bausch is a cause as much as an artist. What’s more, she generously feeds them all special (and apt) moments; sooner or later, everyone gets to be a star.

And yet there’s something odd about the way it all works. The dancers are kinetically connected to each other, but although they perform acts of physical intimacy and/or violence, they don’t seem emotionally connected. The violence isn’t personal; the sex isn’t sexy. It’s as if their psyches are all tuned to Bausch, not to each other; she’s a Queen Bee, out of sight but never out of mind (or control). Tellingly, this is reflected in the program, where the list of Bausch’s accomplishments runs to three full pages, but there are no mini-biographies of the dancers. They’re cared for, they’re presented lovingly, they’re respected, but for all that they apparently participate in the creation of each work, and despite their individual vividness, they’re secondary in a way that the dancers of Graham, Taylor, Cunningham, Tharp, Morris are not; they’re there for the concept, not the other way round.

Pina Bausch has been at the crest of B.A.M.’s New Wave for 20 years, and she’s still there, Brooklyn’s own favorite, even now that what she’s doing isn’t very New. The word “concept” may be the defining principle of the Wave, as opposed to “expression” or “art.” Which is why, although her influence may continue to spread, her own works, for all their smarts, won’t last-new concepts are all too easily replaced by newer ones. At the moment, she’s holding her own by evolving into a softer, more accepting stance-both Für die Kinder and the last work of hers we saw here, Masurca Fogo (remember the live chicken?), are even funny at times. What a joke on the New Wave (and us) if Pina-Heavy morphs not only into Pina-Lite and Pina-Slick but on into Pina-Cute.