Carnations on shaky ground

The cast’s performances are uneven, but Nelken – German for Carnations – is still an experience to behold.
The cast’s performances are uneven, but Nelken – German for Carnations – is still an experience to behold.PHOTO: ESPLANADE

REVIEW / DANCE

NELKEN (CARNATIONS) 

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

da:ns festival

Esplanade Theatre/Thursday

At their best, the works of Pina Bausch are coruscating, affecting and immersive. The leading proponent of Tanztheater, or dance theatre, created streams-of-consciousness montages of movement, drama and music, taking audiences into her fantasy world, where men in suits and women in gowns shed their glossy veneer.

After her unexpected death in 2009, her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, is looking towards new horizons. For an organisation whose identity is built on the genius of its eponymous founder, this new direction is a means towards renewal.

But alas, the Bausch repertoire, which is so intrinsically bound to its unique creators and their relationship with the late choreographer, falls on shaky ground in the hands of new, young dancers.

Returning to Singapore after nearly 40 years, Tanztheater Wuppertal presents Nelken, which is German for Carnations, to open this year's da:ns festival.

The piece is performed by an assorted ensemble, with veterans such as Julie Shanahan and Andrey Berezin amid fresh, post-Bausch faces. There is an allure about the veterans, their stage presence enigmatic and compellingly sustained. This is something that cannot be taught, a je ne sais quoi identified by Bausch and writ large through the creative process. 

But while the cast's performances are uneven, Nelken is still an experience to behold for its scale and momentousness. The work is stunning even before it starts, with the stage blanketed in pink carnations. The image's romanticism is surreal and, before long, it is trampled on both literally and figuratively. The stalks of flowers are felled under the performers' feet as they get tangled in the threads of reality and fiction.

Along with Bausch's perennial themes of love, desire and power in human relationships, Nelken pulses with the brittleness of a displaced people. Even though the piece was made in 1982, it is fortuitously resonant against the backdrop of the migrant crisis happening in Europe. 

Berezin plays the ubiquitous passport official and master of ceremonies who interrupts the action and makes bizarre demands on his charges. Four German shepherds on patrol charge the space with an air of intimidation. Episodes of childhood innocence are underscored by regulation and punishment. A child jumps into his father's embrace, only to be flung off and reprimanded. The ensemble plays the French equivalent of What's The Time, Mr Wolf? with a rogue leader, Michael Strecker.

Bausch sends them running through the field of carnations, now astrewn, declaring their love for love with arms wide open. Through the cacophony, thuggish stuntmen assemble cardboard boxes while a woman pleads against the action, a foreboding of them plummeting from two high scaffolds. There is an anticipation that is built from tension that Bausch creates. And often, the expected yet unthinkable happens.

Standing centre stage behind a table, Berezin meticulously chops onions. The everyday action seems alien on a stage, prompting laughter from the audience. Then four men enter and bury their faces in the pile of chopped pieces. It stings and they grimace, but remain stoic. 

One of them signs George Gershwin's The Man I Love, signaling with a flourish to hold up two fingers to the lyrics: "He'll build a little home, just meant for two."

Despite the melancholy, there is immense hope. Amid the fallen carnations, there are ones still standing. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'Carnations on shaky ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe