When Nelken, choreographed by Pina Bausch, premiered in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1982, its scenes depicting a person of authority inspecting the passports of passersby probably resonated quite pertinently. More than thirty years later, it continues to strike chords for its poignant portrayals of oppression.

Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal turned the stage of the Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris) into a field of pink carnations. Each flower stood upright to about calf height, and through them the dancers play out scenes brought together as randomly as life’s occurrences. A man in a suit stands facing the audience and performs sign language to the lyrics of a recording of the song, “The Man I Love”.  A woman dressed only in white briefs, black heels and an accordion strapped to her chest, crosses the stage on a few occasions, stepping gingerly aound the carnations.  Much like life, the scenes often bleed into one another, adding a richness and realism to the piece. 

In solitude, Bausch’s characters in Nelken are pleasant and composed, but in interaction with others, they succumb to situations of oppression. Andrey Berezin replays the steel-cased stoic that he does so well, a reoccurring character in Bausch’s palette. Here, Berezin demands to inspect the passports of dancers who come into each scene like passersby. He also instructs a dancer to command another one to carry out humiliating acts, such as barking like a dog or jumping like a frog. Her reluctance to impose such towards one of her equals is a chilling demonstration of an oppressor’s power. Beneath the stoicism, Berezin shows glimmers of empathy in an exchange of kisses and slaps on the cheek with Eddie Martinez, who, in this and other of Bausch’s works, powerfully embodies the character of a naïve, perhaps a child, starving for recognition. 

The theme of occupation is reiterated by four men in suits who, with a German Sheppard each, frame certain moments like an enclosure. These men also relish in a scene of intimidation as they successively fall onto a table that they move closer and closer to a helplessly terrified Aida Vainieri who, though unencumbered, is unable to escape her seated position.

In more playful expressions, oppression is manifested in a child’s game where one dancer over-exerts his authority against his playmates, only to have them turn the tables and enforce those same rules on him. In an amusing stunt, the always vivacious Julie Shanahan, sits atop the shoulders of a male dancer, her long skirt hung over to conceal him but his legs. She becomes a giant towering over her playmates and declares that she is now the boss.

Most unsettling is when the dancers thrust the audience into the role of the oppressor. An exasperated Fernando Suels Mendoza rhetorically demands the audience (until hoarse in voice) that which we want to see from him as a dancer, while repeatedly demonstrating the dance moves he suggests.  It is as if being a member of the audience already incriminates us and we are defenseless to this imposition.    

This performance of Nelken achieves the inimitable qualities of Pina Bausch’s work – lifting situations from the anchors of time and place to express the universal essence in human nature. By the end of the performance, the dancers have trampled through our lives like they have through the carnations – the mess of blooms now bent and strewn on the stage like the barrage of questions we now ask about ourselves.