IMPRESSIONS: Tanztheater Wuppertal Returns to BAM with “Água” by Pina Bausch

IMPRESSIONS: Tanztheater Wuppertal Returns to BAM with “Água” by Pina Bausch

Published on April 14, 2023
Maria Giovanna Delle Donne in Água; Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Directed and choreographed by Pina Bausch
Set and video design by Peter Pabst
Costume design by Marion Cito
Musical collaboration with Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider
Collaboration with Marion Cito, Irene Martinez-Rios, Robert Sturm
Assistant Set Design: Nicole Bauer
Assistant Costumes: Birgit Stoessel
Rehearsal Directors: Azusa Seyama-Prioville, Daphnis Kokkinos, Robert Sturm
Dancers:  Emma Barrowman, Dean Biosca, Naomi Brito, Maria Giovanna Delle Donne, Taylor Drury, Letizia Galloni, Nayoung Kim, Alexander López Guerra, Nicholas Losada, Jan Möllmer, Milan Nowoitnick Kampfer, Franko Schmidt, Julie Shanahan, Ekaterina Shushakova, Oleg Stepanov, Denis Klimuk, Julian Stierle, Christopher Tandy, Tsai-Wei Tien, Sara Valenti, Tsai-Chin Yu

March 3-19,2023

Returning to BAM for the first time in six years, Tanztheater Wuppertal presented the US premiere of Água, an erotic and thought-provoking work choreographed by the late icon  of expressionist dance Pina Bausch (1940-2009).

Originally created in 2001 during a residency in Brazil, Água was inspired by the surrounding landscape, wildlife, and culture. Bausch used the country’s vibrant colors and sounds to explore themes of sexuality, self-image, and agency from a uniquely female perspective. Grainy images and looped videos from Brazil are projected on to three curved white walls that envelope the stage from floor to ceiling. In this illusory subtropical world, the dancers connect to their animalistic nature.

a beautiful woman with flowing long brown hear stands dreamily against a gigantic projection of green palm tree fronds.She wears ared silk halter gown stretching her arms long in front of her.
Emma Barrowman in Pina Bausch's Água; Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Like most of Bausch’s work, Água carries us into a farcical alternate-reality that exaggerates stereotypical female and male archetypes. We expect to see hyper-feminine women in long dresses, accompanied by threatening-looking men clad in suits with shoulder pads; but in 2023 it’s impossible to ignore the exclusion of a non-binary/queer perspective. Still, a more nuanced take on Bausch’s work understands her explicit use of gender and sexuality to subvert, ridicule, and question the status quo.

Unsurprisingly, Água begins with a woman in an evening gown. She slurps and sucks on a juicy orange as a man holds a mic to her mouth, occasionally adding a moan to the wet symphony. It’s only one minute into the show and I’m already thinking of SEX.

In Água sex is a lens through which we contemplate the underrepresented female gaze: how women perceive men perceiving women.  Bausch used this perspective to explore women’s contentious relationships with themselves and their experience of desiring and being desirable. We are spectators to the familiar and outlandish game of courtship through a montage of vignettes that range from highly explicit to highly abstract.

close up of a couple, man and woman head and torso shot. She leans on his shoulder and draws a lipstick circle on his forearm. He has lipstick messily applied on his lips and on his belly, she has a circle of lipstick on her nose and mouth. It looks like war paint.
Alexander López Guerra and Nayoung Kim in in Pina Bausch's Água; Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Juxtaposing the plausible and implausible, we encounter believable characters acting out predictable scenarios, but with dark and comical twists. In one scene, dancer Ekaterina Shushakova saunters across the stage, chest splayed, stopping to greet several passing men as they first plant kisses on each of her breasts, and then each cheek. We laugh because this would never happen in real life, yet the scenario scratches at an unspoken truth.

At the heart of Água a chaotic character, played brilliantly by Julie Shanahan, speaks directly and seductively to the audience. She erratically describes a string of impulsive desires, one being how she wants to knock over a table and saw off its leg. She stomps off stage to materialize said table then proceeds to saw at it.  As she attempts to turn her wishes — no matter how outlandish— into reality, she keeps repeating, “It’s impossible.” Underscoring her facetious hysteria lies a deep longing for freedom. Her solo ends as she tells us she doesn’t want to have to be beautiful anymore… She would like to disappear to the back of the stage and dance for herself.

against a projected tropical background the company of dancers women in gowns, men in everyday khaki colored pants and oxford shirts play hold up a flexible water pipe that shoots water out on one of the female dancers who sits on the floor and laughts
Tanztheater Wuppertal in Pina Bausch's Água; Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Though the theatrical elements in Bausch’s work are easier to recall from memory, perhaps for their humor and context, the movement is what leaves a lasting emotional impression. Maybe that’s why Bausch wanted the dancers to repeat the same movement phrase for entire five-minute songs…so it would sink in?

Repetitive and long as  the dance sections can be , Bausch’s women move with breathtaking ferocity and freedom. With hair perfectly undone and falling in front of their eyes, they are wild and unfettered. Their steps melt away and eventually we forget that we’re watching dance. Instead, we feel the impetus of each movement. Every jump is a suspension of hope; every fall demonstrates fearless abandon.

a woman in a slinky white gown with thin straps appears to hang in the air or vertically float. Facing us, her arms are lifted above her head, and her hair flies along with them.
Maria Giovanna Delle Donne in Pina Bausch's Água; Photo: Julieta Cervantes

I’ve always wondered why Bausch insisted on women wearing ridiculously impractical dresses in her choreography. Yet watching Água for the first time, I believe I understand what her objective might have been. Although long dresses might be seen as  restrictive, or even oppressive, no garment can contain the  boundless potential of these women. Underneath every meticulous outfit, and the other innumerable external forces caging her in, there lives a person with her own thoughts, feelings, passions, and above all, free will. Untamed by the suffocating expectations of society, Água is the ephemeral oasis where women unabashedly satiate their thirst for physical pleasure, power, and freedom.


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