Disorientation in Água
For all its sensual theatricality, Pina Bauschs 2001 ode to Brazil lacks clear intent.
March 3–19, 2023
A collage of mainly solos, Água simultaneously transcends and unnerves. German choreographer Pina Bausch developed Água in 2001 during a residency in Brazil—one of many countries where she was invited to make work between 1986 and 2009, when she died. Bausch choreographed over forty pieces throughout her impressive career. She blurred the boundary between dance and theater, integrating dialogue and acting into her choreography, and Água stays true to this amalgamation. Unwaveringly immersive, Água’s US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is a dizzying fantasy with a rich, varied soundtrack. Video footage of lush foliage, rainforests, waterfalls, and drumming in the street projects onto the colossal back wall, creating a set for the choreography and filling the stage as much as, if not more than, the movement.
A highly theatrical work, Água explores comedy through breaking the fourth wall. Performers stare directly at the audience and speak directly to them as well. During an early outburst, Julie Shanahan—a longtime company member who has performed in previous stagings of the work—repeats to the audience, “And then I wanted to … but I know it’s not possible,” describing her frenzied desires, which include adorning a beautiful dress and breaking a wooden table. The frantic, repetitive movement during Shanahan’s solo enhances her monologue, exemplifying Bausch’s ability to unite abstract movement with spoken word to produce a detailed depiction of emotion.
From David Byrne to Gilberto Gil, the soundtrack complements the projection, costumes, and choreography. Emotion and sensuality take corporeal forms in Água. Swirls ripple through the bodies, and facial expressions comprise part of the choreography as well. Naomi Brito eclipses the stage with radiant movement and immense extension. Nayoung Kim’s graceful, precise gestures capture the audience. The choreography seems natural, brimming with pleasure. Performers’ eyes are often closed, suggesting a dream-like state. The movement is full of gyrating momentum, with hardly a moment of stillness, particularly against the projections. With gestures as a motif throughout the piece, fingers and hands are a focal point in the choreography, sometimes seeming to be separate from the rest of the body. The cast embodies gorgeous, full movement and drama.
For all its sensual theatricality, however, Água lacks clearly-communicated intention with regard to its subject matter. With this illegibility, Bausch has created caricatures rather than characters to whom the audience can relate. There is distance between the performers and the audience; we are never fully able to empathize with or understand the dancers. While the surrealist vignettes and character sketches are very much aligned with Bausch’s style, the piece’s theme, combined with the rapid, shaky footage surrounding the performers, contributes to a quality of disorientation in Água. Perhaps this unmooring represents the alienation that Bausch felt during her time in Brazil, or perhaps it is a nod to the distance between Bausch’s European culture and that of Brazil’s. Either way, the piece needs further articulation of Bausch’s relationship to the country.
Água feels like a trip through someone else’s memories. It draws from reality, but is surreal. There is familiarity in the insinuation of emotions, humor, flirtation, and desire, but these elements also feel ungrounded without attribution. In this way, Brazil is rendered as conceptual, as fantasy, as exotic. The broad theme of “Brazil” is reductive and irresponsible without questioning or challenging Bausch’s position in the country. Toward the middle of the piece—the end of the first half and beginning of the second half—the large projection screens give way to white outdoor couches that might be found at a resort. The dancers hold towels adorned with suggestive body parts in front of their own bodies, creating a comical illusion. Playing on heterosexual desire, this section was entertaining and crude, garnering laughs from the audience. But its touristic voyeurism trivializes the power dynamic of being a tourist, especially, as in Bausch’s case, a European tourist in Brazil. The consumption and aestheticization of an “exotic culture” reminded me of HBO’s The White Lotus, perhaps without the critical foresight. Both rely on an absurdist and exaggerated, but ultimately accurate, depiction of tourism.
Consistent with its cartoon-ish characters, Água presents stark, un-nuanced gender roles. Women wear long, flowy dresses—a sartorial choice that Pina often utilizes in her pieces—and men are mostly clad in suits and pants. All the women have long hair that hangs loose, often making its way into the choreography. The costumes compliment the fluid, whimsical, and seductive choreography, but heighten the gender divide in much of the phrase work. This heteronormative, even patriarchal, performance of gender is not just aesthetic, but physical. The choreography enforces rigid, normative, and at times oppressive, gender roles. Men lift and manipulate women’s bodies as if they were dolls, while they flail as if trying to escape. Along these lines, there is no weight sharing or counterbalance; most of the contact revolved around women being lifted by men. The purpose of Água’s rigid gender roles is elusive. Are they meant to be a commentary on Brazil, or a representation of Brazilian culture? In the context of the theme, the gender roles read as an ignorant and oversimplified misrepresentation of Brazil and non-European culture more broadly. Although the gendered performance and resort imagery could be a parody or exaggeration, it’s a careless choice against Bausch’s fabrication of the Brazilian idyll.
In contrast to Bausch’s most iconic works, Café Müller and The Rite of Spring, which are darker, more disturbing and challenging, Água’s tone is more uncomplicatedly joyful and playful, full of ignorant bliss. With elements of surprise and playful flirtation, the work deals with pleasure and sexuality in a way that is de-contextualized and vacant of meaning. The sensual touches, mainly perpetrated by men towards women, are sudden and disconcerting. These moments of contact seem out-of-place among solos and are not sequenced upon previous intimacies. Their relationship to each other, and therefore the intention behind their proximity, is unclear.
To contemplate Água in 2023 is to consider its gaps. Perhaps the decision to stage the Brazilian dreamscape was prompted by presumed commercial success, rather than serving as a representation of Bausch’s practice as a choreographer. Is the choice a service or a disservice to the work and its creator? Can we analyze and critique works when we lack their context and cannot refer back to their creator for clarity? What is the merit of restaging a work like Água that is relatively contemporary, but without addressing shifts in social and political contexts over twenty years? A critical reinterpretation of Água that questioned the original theme and gender roles, if it were possible to also honor and expand upon Bausch’s vision, would have made for a more pertinent and powerful performance.