Watching the late Pina Bausch’s torrential Vollmond made me marvel at the theater’s ability to mirror life. The show, part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, arrived in New York at the end of what could accurately be described as The Week of the Monsoon. The region’s five boroughs were tempest-tossed indeed: a shroud of steel-gray clouds darkened our dispositions as the wind and rain downed trees and power lines. The flooding of our subways and the outlining suburbs were only a part of it. The morning of the performance I awoke to a veritable waterfall in my apartment’s kitchen, a result of a clogged roof drain.
Unlike the nightmare of wet sponges, tippling buckets and pans awaiting me at home, Vollmond (translated as full moon) presents a mesmeric waterworld where copious rain (a thrilling effect—nothing beats a shower on stage) and playful, imagistic dance coalesce. It’s also the kind of work that carries contradiction in its every elegant, disjunctured frame. Good theater doesn’t require linear storytelling: Bausch knew that an assemblage of potent, scrupulously wrought stage pictures provide viewers with enough information to concoct their own scenarios. Emotions, feeling, are the engine that drives her tanztheater, something I was reminded of whenever the subject of Bausch comes up. When I mentioned to colleagues that I’d be attending Vollmond, the near-rapture that spreads across their faces attests to the indelibility of her work. All took a moment to gush over their experiences: to marvel over the show where a wall of bricks collapsed (Palermo, Palermo), or the one where the stage was festooned with a sea of red carnations (Nelken). To be bitten by Bausch means one has journeyed into a world as familiar, and strange, as those encountered in one’s sleep. It’s the most beguiling combination of shock and pleasure one could experience without the aid of drugs.
Peter Pabst’s set design is soothing/sinister void of rich blackness dominated by a mountainous crater nestled on a lake that spans the length of the Opera House’s stage. As people began to drift onstage, the energy shifts to something quite the opposite as two men fill empty jugs with water; Rainer Behr and Jorge Puerta Armenta then partner in a centrifugal display of whippet turns and pinwheeling arms, a simultaneous expression of horseplay and martial aggression. Gradually that full moon begins to cast its spell—here, dancers run in ever-widening circles, there, couples partake of mating rituals (there’s a nice visual joke when diminutive Ditta Miranda Jasjfi bestows rapid-fire kisses on Michael Strecker like a duck in hot pursuit). The levels of madness are subtle and explosive, fueled, as in life, by the seeming excesses of hormones, wine, energy and too-little sleep. Bausch exploits that hoary bit of a man turning his body into a chair to illustrate how, in a world populated by beautiful, headstrong women, men become willing props who subvert their dignity for attention. They’re also there to satiate their assumptions of female desire, as in the silent, repeated bit in which a waiter, on the pretext of filling a glass, drenches a comely miss from head to toe.
“I’m so hungry,” exults one woman as she slinks across the stage; the line’s come-hither subtext speaks for everyone on stage. Sex rules, and much of the dialogue when not underlining the action, provides cryptic aphorisms. At one point, the blowsy hilarious Nazareth Panadero asserts: “What is better—one big glob or a teeny bit of love every day? In a marvelous Chagall-like sequence both the men and women rush about the stage leaping onto chairs before bending to kiss whoever’s sitting there, a roundelay of sensuous generosity that radiates back to the last row.
Melancholia burbles unexpectedly. Quirky comedy gets flipped to genuine derangement in the person of the red-haired Helena Pikon. In the first act her quiet, comic inebriation spirals into a thwarted attempt at self-immolation. Later, racked with fidgets, she appears with a carrot and a coat hanger: the appearance of these totems of pregnancy and abortion are indicative of Bausch’s ability to shift moods radically, tossing in bits of rue to leaven the general air of bemusement. It happens again when Dominque Mercy (a long-time stalwart of the company who, since Bausch’s death, now shares its directorship with Robert Sturm) wafts onto the stage. His saturnine presence shifts the evening’s tenor, which until then resembles a bacchanalia at the end of the world. After an initial bit of sly humor (Mercy, reclining, flicks his “tail” and lolls like a beast on the Serengeti) he drifts into a long solo—floor bound, back and arms arching towards the sky—that is a revelation of wistful regret. As his body pitches skyward over and over, it’s hard not to think of a man who’s done with aging, loneliness, who wants to be taken by the heavens.
It’s in its latter half that Vollmond most resembles a dream. Freud would have loved the moment when the women pace like somnambulistic wraiths in black sheaths. On top of the rock slab, the bullet-like Rainer Behr strips to a pair of red briefs: the tiny dancer is now a mythic Colossus. The hallucinations play out in sculptural imagery: Dressed in white ruffles, Julie Ann Stanzak conjures a new species of being through her stately carriage; Jasjfi’s long wet hair flips droplets that spray the air like diamonds; brightly gowned women partner with men dressed only in Speedos, a clever reverse of objectification that is no less sensual. But earthlier considerations also play out. In a comic bit of deconstruction, Panadero instructs her man in the proper ways to partner—one should grasp the ribcage, not the waist when performing a lift. It’s played for laughs, but here Bausch reminds us that a method anchors the dance, and allows the dream to unfold.
Vollmond culminates in a charming line dance that builds to a water-works display. As the cast flings water against the rocks and into the air, Fernando Jacon’s lighting transforms the drops into bursts of fireworks. The jubilant squeals emanating from the stage voiced the exhilaration felt by us in the audience; by this point, I was sweating a fountain of gratitude, happy for an experience that almost made me forget the dispiriting weather week that was—and the mess scattered across my kitchen floor.