The curtain is up when the audience arrives at BAM’s Gilman Opera House for Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof (1978), and the set immediately made me wonder. It’s a big, three-walled box, with chairs neatly aligned along the back and sides: a dance hall. But the box is topped by a totally featureless ceiling, and the walls are pierced only by a single tall, narrow window and three small doors. There’s something self-contained, isolated, and confined about this space. It could be a lab-like setting, made for controlled observations, or some other closed, bounded environment, maybe all of human society. In retrospect, I think the setting and events of Kontakthof are an early version of a realm that can be called Bausch-world, less fantastic, less abstractly theatrical, and more troubling than some of the later versions we’ve seen in New York. But at the outset it was hard to tell how to regard this space.
The piece starts in stasis, with the entire cast of 24 seated in chairs. In silence, one woman comes forward and prepares to present herself, widening her mouth as if to check her teeth or practice a smile, placing her hands out with palms up as if to accept a partner, putting one leg forward for a moment. She returns to the rear, music begins, and the other women repeat her routine. They retreat and the men do the same. As a group, arranged like a set of bowling pins, the cast moves toward the front, looking rather stern as they repeat a simple set of unison movements. A woman among them breaks into a laugh, keeps it up for a while, suddenly falls silent and collapses to the floor. The others ignore her as they return to their seats. All this happens in a measured, methodical way.
Some time passes before the performers respond to one another or interact. A woman who utters sounds of pleasure into a PA microphone earns applause from the others as she goes. A man and a woman take turns doing little hurtful things to each other—he pinches her, she slowly presses her heel onto his toe, etc. They stop and another couple takes it up. A man dangles a mouse in front of a woman; when she screams and moves away, he chases her with it. The cast divides, with the woman standing on the right side of the stage and the men seated in chairs along the left; the men make grabby moves from a distance and keep it up as they scoot across the stage in their chairs. When they reach the women, there’s a writhing mass of arms and bodies for a moment. Then, suddenly, that business is over and everyone launches into a boogie in which, oddly, they’re all dancing by themselves. A little later, we see a procession—a hallmark of Bausch’s work—in which masked couples go two by two down one side of the stage, punctuated by a cackle from each woman in turn.
There’s one notably odd section, which occasioned much talk among my companions afterward. The performers all take seats at the front of the stage looking toward the rear; a curtain is drawn to reveal a blank surface, onto which is projected a short nature film about ducks. Here’s a possible reading of that: the stage is like Plato’s cave, containing all of human society, and what appears on the screen is (like the shadows on the wall in Plato) a figuration of the world outside culture—in other words, nature—which they aren’t a part of and can’t directly know. The performers watch the film in silence, utter a collective “Ah” (or was it “Oh”?) when it ends, and show no other response. Whatever it means, our people aren’t interested.
Kontakthof can be loosely rendered into English as “meeting-place,” and you might say that the entire piece is about what we seek from others and what we get from them. “The way we treat each other, that’s the issue,” says a teenaged girl who was trained to perform it. (The line comes from a short post on the BAM website by Marina Harss, about the dance and the ways it’s been performed by non–company members.) But it’s not that much about couples. One of the processions shows us how women have trouble walking in high heels, while another looks like a Paul Taylor moment—men and women with arms raised in a V—that’s been drained of its brightness. However, there is talk—another Bausch hallmark—about couples. We hear story excerpts from one performer after another, each told in (one assumes) that person’s home language, each recounting a variety of contact: a kiss, a date, a night spent with someone. Each story is cut off at a turning point, as if to say, “There’s more to that, but we have to move on.”
One gets the same sense from the whole work. It’s long, nearly three hours with intermission, and its only structure seems to be the kind of dream logic in which something happens for a while, then something else takes its place. We’re always somewhere in the middle of things; the piece is always moving on. If Kontakthof is a social study, it comes to no final conclusion. It begins, as I said, in silence and stillness. Two hours and 50 minutes later, as one of its German songs plays yet again, the performers are all dancing in a circle—a form that has no beginning or end—and as the lights fall that’s how we leave them.
Kontakthof is being performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House through November 2, 2014. Ticket information here. Reviewed at the October 24 performance. Photographs by Julieta Cevantes.
[Updated 10/28/14 to correct a typo.]