Pina Bausch’s Agua, created after a trip to Brazil in 2001, seemed entirely unconnected to the debt-ridden, crisis-riven context that it found itself in as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Bausch’s dancers, in floating dresses or summer suits brought to life a romantic version of Brazil. There were no references to crime, poverty or ecology – just an endless pulse of music, flirting and movement. From the opening sequence, illuminated by video projections of palms swaying in the sea breeze, to the concluding water fight two and half hours later, the piece exuded tremendous fun and sensuality.
Beyond the joyous respite I found when watching the piece, I also came to look at Bausch in a new light. An analogue emerged that surprised me. A link slotted in place in my brain, connecting Bausch’s fictional worlds to those created by the recently deceased writer and filmmaker, Nora Ephron (writer of When Harry Met Sally and, most recently, Julia and Julia). Such a connection might seem odd. The path between avant-garde expressionism and witty Hollywood sentimentality is not obvious. However, Agua has very little of the dark melancholy we might associate with Bausch’s work, so often steeped in the company’s fragmented memories of post-war Germany.
The piece reminds us that, like Ephron, Bausch had a great sense of humour and a wonderful feel for life’s vitality and charm. Beyond the angst of expressionism there is something tremendously aspirational and romantic in the dreamlike worlds that she brought to life. The men and women in her company are all uniquely beautiful, with their languid limbs and tumbling, shiny hair. The locations are vibrant and elemental, and the costumes are exquisitely chosen. However this beauty is just close enough to the audiences who fill theatres to watch her work to pique a romantic engagement with the worlds onstage. The dancers are beautiful, but not otherworldly. The places they inhabit are founded on a strong core of reality.
The details of human behaviour are uniquely well observed in Bauch’s choreography. As in Ephron’s comedies, Bausch makes weirdness sexually appealing and turns vulnerability and neurosis to comic purposes. The dancers present anxieties and foibles, but such flaws are edited and shaped in such a way so as not to alienate. They are charming. The realities of adult experience are filtered through a keen understanding of our desire to be beautiful, to formulate a witty response, or to have that perfect kiss.
One of the final moments of Agua involves the company of dancers perched on round tables, gyrating their hips as though spinning on a fair ground ride. Each dancer grins out at the audience looking both silly and sexy, presenting an attractive tension between openness, calm and humour. As I watched, I thought of Meg Ryan faking an orgasm over lunch in a busy deli in New York, shrieking with pleasure before taking a forkful of salad with studied nonchalance as Billy Crystal looks on mortified. Both moments cut to the core of an appealing and adult view of romantic aspiration. There is no reference to the banal hyper-sexuality that pervades adverts on TV and in magazines. Instead we find performers embodying the confidence to look foolish and stay beautiful -presenting the attractive confidence found in not taking oneself too seriously.
Agua showed that not only did Bausch know how to have fun, but that she knew what kind of fun audiences dream of having. As the show finished, I sprang out of the theatre with the sound of samba ringing in my ears, thinking I’ll have whatever Pina was having.