Bausch and Schaeffer

Grand scales, immense visions

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 15 Sep 2010


One of the pleasures of The Edinburgh International Festival is the arrival of companies that don’t usually perform outside of London: shows on a massive scale, or from choreographers of international fame. Pina Bausch’s Agua is a fine example. A surprisingly joyous three hours from the German revolutionary, best known for her determined re-invention of dance through a series of brutal pieces, Agua operates as a series of snapshots from Brazil, an episodic travelogue from her residency in South America that rarely pauses to doubt or question. At the same time, Era Schaeffera demonstrates that the Fringe is capable of matching the EIF, with a multimedia display that incorporates video, performance, clowning and orchestra to reflect on the composer’s life and work.

Bausch visited Brazil in 2000, and Agua emerged from her extended stay. It consciously avoids any political engagement – it seems to centre around the company as tourists, enjoying the flora and hospitality of a wealthy nation. Even in the finale, when the dancers cover themselves in water, evoking a scene from the less comfortable sections of society, the sense of fun is palpable. This has led to criticism, that Bausch ignores the inequality in Brazil, and merely displays opulence: the use of huge, brightly coloured projections, the glamour of the costumes and the sense of health and well-being that permeates the dances all certainly hint at a five star stay rather than a meaningful connection with the nation.
Yet, this is a measure of Bausch’s honesty: having made work that explored gender, violence and primal brutality, for Agua, she concentrates on her own experience, without hitching her work to a broader political analysis. The reward is seeing superb dancers, celebrating their skill and community. Even the brief moments of anxiety are social, not political, and the charm is overwhelming.

Era Schaeffera is conversely disturbing. Beginning with a small group and a ear-splitting vocal solo, it wanders through Schaeffer’s compositions with a mild sense of fun interrupting some serious compositions. A debate about the function of art follows a teasing battle between serious pianist and a provocative fool, who articulates the angst of the excluded; an anonymous team of observers watch from the back as the orchestra performs. There is a constant sense of dislocation, as the large screens not only focus on the musicians but create an enclosed, disturbing circle. The idea of being watched and monitored is ever-present, and the discussions, which often lead to a stalemate, reveal an underlying questioning of form and function that informs the musical pieces.
In sharp contrast to Agua, Era Schaeffera is politically alert, drawing attention to the influence of a totalitarian structure behind state sponsorship and support. If Agua is best represented by the moment at the end of the first act, when the dancers lounge on sofa and an intermission is languidly announced, the silent whispers of the anonymous moderators is emblematic of the themes within Schaeffer’s celebration.

If Agua appeals as a light meditation on a country, Era Schaeffera captures alienation and disorientation: a layered vocal solo is distressing and impressive at the same time, while the atmosphere is controlled and polite. For Bausch devotees, and casual audiences, Agua is a surprisingly gentle ramble, while Schaeffera is a reminder of arts’ relationship to the state, especially when the state is controlling and manipulative.


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