Three distinct images from Pina Bausch’s Nelken are famous. We know them from photographs in books and magazines and news clips ever since Nelken (Carnations) was first performed, in 1982. They are of a man standing alone in a field of over 8,000 pink carnations; of German shepherds patrolling the stage and barking at male dancers in gauzy dresses; and of death-defying plunges by black-suited men from tall scaffolding towers into a pile of brown cardboard boxes.
These poignant and electrifying scenes have become part of our literature, as influential perhaps as any of Bausch‘s early work has been on the aesthetics of performance art and contemporary theater dance. They are lodged in the memory of many of us who’ve never even seen Nelken. (The current engagement of Bausch‘s Tanztheater Wuppertal at UCLA’s Royce Hall, through October 10, is the first performance on the West Coast.) This is the piece we heard so much about at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. It‘s the carrot held out to those of us fortunate enough to have seen Cafe Muller and Le Sacre du Printemps and Bluebeard then, and have yearned to experience all of Bausch’s important work.
If the images of Nelken have become almost mythical over time, it is possibly as much due to the contributions of designer Peter Pabst as to the dramatic actions and choreographic ideas of Bausch. A freelance artist who frequently designs for opera and film in Europe, Pabst has aligned himself with Bausch for nearly two decades. He travels with her company whenever possible, and will be in Los Angeles; if you look behind the Royce Hall audience, you‘ll see him, the self-described balding man who paces a lot. He’ll be watching (and pacing) for very specific reasons.
In 1982, Nelken ran three hours with an intermission. At Royce, it will run less than two hours without a break. These changes, Pabst noted by phone from Germany last week, have affected the rhythm and density of the work, but not the content.
“Nelken is about the picture, the virgin beauty in the very beginning with this field of carnations,” he said. “I have to make sure it‘s done like it was the very first time. That the flowers appear untouched, and then the dancers move and the flowers get hurt. It’s important to notice that change.”
His remarks mirror a quote from Bausch — who rarely gives interviews and loathes being asked to supply the meaning of her work — in a European newspaper: “It‘s about falling in love for the first time.”
Both Pabst and Bausch are fanatical about details. In order to maintain Nelken’s design, Pabst makes sure the truly ruined (artificial) carnations are thrown out after each performance; the rest are replaced one by one in the holes in the stage. For Pabst, the sight of husky stagehands tenderly replanting the carnations is almost as moving as Nelken, he said. He finds the images of contrast exciting, as well as the juxtaposition of reality and artifice.
Clearly, Pabst and Bausch are on the same page. “We discuss a lot whether a piece needs something rather artificial to get at reality, or if it needs strict reality,” Pabst said. In one scene this dialectic is achingly vivid: Male dancers, vulnerable in silky dresses, are accosted by an officer of the state (Jan Minarik), who demands to see their passports. Four actual German shepherds strain at their leashes, snarling, but the dancers continue to frolic. The risks are moral and physical: childlike anarchy vs. an authoritarian police state. (“The brutality is there to show the opposite,” Bausch has said. “I am not championing violence. How can you make clear onstage the feelings if we don‘t see why there is suffering, or anger?”) That a dancer could get hurt, bitten, is a real possibility. Pabst’s responsibility is to make Bausch‘s reality believable, without crossing the line to something really real.
“I wanted dogs in order to have something against the sweetness. We have dogs,” he said. “I thought it would be easy.”
Thus, Pabst’s pacing at the back of the theater. Although there have not been any serious accidents in Nelken, Pabst is on hand to make sure the dancers‘ peril is falsely genuine, that the fake carnations look actually crushed and that the images stick in the collective memory of another generation.
“Most of all,” he said, “I care that the work is still very much alive.”
For more information on Tanz theater Wuppertal, see Dance listings in Calendar.