Who could have imagined that the aggressive, angry, über-feminist Pina Bausch of 20 years ago would have metamorphosed into the romantic, sensual and—yes—charming Pina Bausch of today? The sensibility that produced what Arlene Croce, in 1984, referred to as “Animal House with weltschmerz” is now celebrating life and love in Istanbul, in a piece called Nefés (that’s Turkish for “breath”). Yes! The old in-your-face New Wave is rapidly receding from B.A.M.’s shoreline; in its place, Turkish delights.
Four years ago, Bausch brought us her Lisbon in Masurca Fogo—that was the one with the live chicken. Masurca was already at a distant remove from the furious angst of her early days, but it wasn’t a patch on the Nefés joyfest. Which I suppose makes sense, since Lisbon has a somewhat mournful cast—it’s as if it’s fallen through a crack in time—whereas Istanbul is erupting with life force. And, apparently, with sex.
As usual, Bausch serves up a series of unconnected episodes and anecdotes, most of them solos and pas de deux and trios. Nefés starts off with a bunch of guys in a hamam (that’s Turkish for “Turkish bath”). They’re bare-chested, white towels wrapped around their bottoms, tiny black briefs peeking through. (In the old days, there might have been nothing under those towels.) The men lie about, while lovely women wander in and dry their long hair over them. Some of the women in Bausch’s For the Children … , seen here two years ago, were dominatrixes in black, wielding hairbrushes ready to spank. The women in Nefés, for the most part, are here to please—in one short episode, they even seem to be dogs, sidling up to their masters on their hands and knees to be patted. Maybe that’s how it works in Istanbul.
Many of the traditional Bausch devices are trotted out: snatches of sassy dialogue; a blast of film (two dancers on the stage frantically dodging the projected buses, trucks, taxis, bicycles apparently rushing at them); a large pool of water in the middle of the stage (the Bosporus?) which the dancers circle, lap at, wash in, wade through. There are cocktail parties, tentative matings, an isolated moment of anguish when one of the men shudders in despair and then is soothed and comforted by nine welcoming, embracing women.
The fascinating thing is that, for the first time in my experience of Bausch, her ideological agenda and her neurotic tics are almost fully subordinated to actual choreography—to dance invention. You can sense her enjoyment in giving these talented dancers of hers real dance things to do. A short guy has a convulsive solo, followed by a tall guy whose solo moves are more restrained; both are compelling. The exquisite, delicate Shantala Shivalingappa ends Part 1 with a ravishing solo of flirtation and knowing innocence. And there’s a real finale, with the 10 men slowly moving across the stage on one knee in an unfolding frieze, while the 10 women, upstage, cross in the opposite direction in a lovely repeated posture of affirmation. It’s a passage of real beauty, and it triggers one’s regret for the dance opportunities missed while Bausch was spending all those years exploring her Euro-concepts and reveling in her Euro-psyche.
So she can create convincing moves and patterns, and compelling images. What she has yet to learn is economy. Like everything I’ve ever seen of hers, Nefés is bloated: three hours, including intermission. For Bausch, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing over and over. Almost every episode is at least 20 percent too long, and there are too many of them to begin with. Edited down to an hour and 40 minutes of material, say, without the intermission that just chops the whole work in two for no structural reason (structure is not a Bausch strong point), Nefés would have been a glory. As it is, it’s a compromised pleasure. But considering how she’s oppressed us in the past, who’s complaining?