by Kathleen Smith

A huge boulder dominates the stage for the entirety of Pina Bausch’s Vollmond (Full Moon), presented by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in November. Solid and intractable, it is the antithesis of the other essential feature of Vollmond (and several of Bausch’s works), water. Over the course of 150 minutes, with one intermission, the 12 remarkable cast members of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, now directed by Lutz Förster, passionately work both elements to maximum effect.

Framed by veteran designer Peter Pabst’s dramatic staging, Vollmond speaks to human athleticism and a sense of play, to everyday wit and poetry; at times it’s theatre of cruelty meets Saturday morning cartoons. Bausch’s work can sometimes feel closer to theatre or performance art than it does to choreography, but Vollmond is undeniably a statement in dance.

There are several splendid solos in the first act. For me, the finest is Ditta Miranda Jasjfi’s yearning dance as rain starts to fall upstage and around the rock. The choreography is all sinuous arms and ecstatic swirls with some evocative hand gestures (which sometimes seem derived from classical Indian dance). Jasjfi is a concentrated bomb of grace and energy moving to the familiar vocals (from the Wim Wenders’ film, Pina) of Greek singer Maria Spyropoulou. Jasjfi basks in the falling rain, worshipping it with all the sensuality in her body. The magic only ends when Jorge Puerta Armenta runs up with a piece of chalk to outline her body as she lies half in and half out of the pooling water.

So begins another Bauschean comic vignette, stitching one scene to the next with a giggle or a smile. Some of these are brief, yet they are always effective and poignant, as when the elegant Hélene Pikon stumbles across the stage with a carrot suspended in front of her face and a small hanger in her hand with which she periodically and gently hits herself.

There’s quite a bit of hitting in Vollmond, and when people aren’t smacking each other, they’re kissing. Sometimes it’s hit-and-run style, but in one extended scene the women are seated on chairs scattered across the stage while the men run at them, jump up on the edges of each seat and kiss each woman in a deliriously rhythmic seesaw of movement.

Bausch’s continued fascination for the tension and cruelty found within interpersonal confrontations finds articulation in multiple scenes. The one where Azusa Seyama administers a humiliating lesson in speedy and efficient bra unfastening was alternately amusing and horrifying. Which is actually my typical reaction to many of Bausch’s works, more muted here because Vollmond is not as harsh as Kontakthof, say, or Rite of Spring. She often uses what appear at first to be light-hearted games and silly exercises to illustrate unsettling psychological or emotional ideas. Bausch is content to reveal them briefly, then let them go. We may make of them what we will.

In addition to being a stunning expression of choreographic intent, Vollmond is the distillation of an artistic life of rare quality. It is also an elegy of sorts, a tribute to Bausch’s longtime agent and advisor Thomas Erdos, who died in 2004 — but also, and although no one would have realized it at the time, an elegy for Bausch herself. The doyenne of dance theatre died suddenly in June 2009; Vollmond, from 2006, is one of her last major works. Taking this into consideration makes the waves of sorrow that washed over the auditorium in the second act more comprehensible.

It’s not just that the dancers trade their silky jewel-coloured evening gowns and white shirts for black costumes. There’s a quality of going on in the midst of despair that marks some of the dancing. Dominique Mercy’s solo (he’s been with the company for 40 years) is a case in point. Mercy thrashes and grasps his belly, hurls himself to the ground and pulls himself back up, then repeats it all to just past the point where it’s comfortable to watch. Feelings of desperation are present also in the scenes in which Jasjfi runs repeatedly away from Armenta, who catches her by grabbing the back of her long black coat. She ends up in the water, flailing. There’s a relentlessness on both sides that’s chilling.  The atmosphere is aided by Romanian violinist Alexander Balanescu’s music, a driving but unbearably sad string quartet.

The dark mood doesn’t last and the conclusion to Vollmond is a joyous moon-drunk bacchanal in the water, with everyone dancing their hearts out, hurling buckets of water around, running full tilt across the stage and doing full body slides through the growing pool. Some of the men perform manic solos atop the rock; others climb on it and then hurl themselves into the water. Everywhere we catch glimpses of movement vocabulary reprised from Act 1. It’s a frenzied ode to life, which must, after all, go on. And a fitting swansong for a dance icon who gave so much, left too soon and is still deeply missed.

Artists of Tanztheater Wuppertal in Pina Bausch’s Vollmond Photo: Laurent Philippe

DI Spring 2015