Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Pina's Sense of Snow

November 12, 2007

from Ten chi choreographed by Pina Bausch
Photo: Jochen Viehoff 2006
It almost didn’t happen, but I’m sure glad it did. With the pre-Holiday season in full swing, I nearly passed by probably the most exciting and visually engaging event of the entire UCLA-sponsored performing arts fall season. All the press may have been about Ian McKellen’s Lear but it was Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal that delivered the goods – in spades. This was the US premiere of a work, Ten Chi, originally developed and performed in 2004 in conjunction with Saitama Prefecture, Saitama Arts Foundation and the Nippon Cultural Centre. Sunday's matinee got off to a rough start when the performance was delayed over a half-an-hour as UCLA, the worst run box office in the city, loudly tried to pass the buck onto Ticketmaster for the large number of patrons whose tickets had mysteriously not turned up at Will Call. It was worth the wait, however, as Ten Chi is a wild and woolly nearly three hours of inspired movement, irreverent humor, and stunning images that will last a long time after first exposure.

This is a non-narrative work with several recurring sequences and themes that never add up to some Big Idea but hypnotize the audience with the wonder of a whole bunch of little ones. It is populated with women with long flowing hair in floor length silken dresses and men in black suits. There are two primary speaking parts that use a diverse set of texts from the likes of Brecht, Samarago and Wislawa Szymborska. The first speaker is a maniacal woman seen periodically in red pumps who gets excited over vegetables and later inspects the fingers of everyone in the front row. The other speaker is a cranky middle-aged woman whose dark and sultry voices shares her wisdom about men and other inconsequential matters throughout the work. Meanwhile the 15 other dancers arrive and depart from both inside and outside of the proscenium racing or languishing as they see fit. Their interactions with one another are often brief and more often than not come without clear resolution.

from Ten chi choreographed by Pina Bausch
Photo: Jochen Viehoff 2006
Two themes do seem to recur however, sleep and Japanese culture. The stage itself is a dreamscape dominated by a giant whale’s tail and another hump further upstage that suggest the performers are dancing on water. A more senior male member of the troupe at intervals coaches individuals in the audience to snore loudly spoofing on both the notion of boredom and that the whole work on some level is a dream. Bausch never succumbs to trippy New Age stuff that this set might suggest, however, and instead often engages her players in urbane games with tables and chairs and other hallmarks of daily life incongruous to the deep blue sea. Of course the whale does evoke Japan but only indirectly as much of the cultural elements in the piece do. This is not a work about actual Japanese culture, but the (mis)conception of it by the West. Dancers instruct each other in the etiquette of posture and deportment, the cranky narrator completes a psychotic declination of Japanese words that have infiltrated the English language, and a woman pounds and crushes a pillow with an extended Godzilla impersonation. All of this seems a comic take on the West’s co-optation of Japanese culture, which it then tries to sell back to itself as some ersatz notion of authentic Japan.

Did I mention the snow? About mid-way through the first act it begins to do so and doesn’t stop until after the high-energy final sequence. Besides creating a sense of tension over the concern that someone may slip in all of this, it adds extra dimensions to the movement on stage by altering the space around the dancers themselves. Plus I’ll admit it, I'm a sucker for stage snow. Where does all this lead? Well perhaps nowhere in particular but it does it beautifully and sometimes that is just about all you need. Ten Chi is smart and funny and will be up at Berkeley this weekend. It should be high on your priority list

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