Things That Happen in Bausch’s “Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört”
- A woman buries a chair in soil
- A man dressed as a lifeguard blows up multiple balloons until they burst. He later makes a sandwich out of his own arm complete with garnish.
- A woman polishes shoes as a crowd race around her
- A seated woman screams for about two minutes, as a man runs and leaps over her a lot
- Twenty-four fir trees are hauled onstage, then off again
- A live brass band plays an early 20th Century German tune whilst a woman slaps and hits herself forcefully.
- A man plays “Cry Me a River” for a few bars, then stops, each time removing an article of clothing.
- A woman is swathed in bandages until she can only waddle, like a mummy, then chases people.
- A man stalks the stage with a rubber band around his nose.
- A guy plays percussion on the buttocks of his fellow cast-members.
Swan Lake, this ain’t.
Nietzsche once said that “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” Bausch shares this same thought. I hesitate to call this a particularly German sentiment – it is instead the conclusion which often afflicts genius. Other reviewers have called this tragi-comic, which is not quite accurate. It is comic, but not by tragedy. It is instead a work of nihility so strong as to elicit only that response: laughter, in the dark.
Laughter as a defense: in one portion of the evening, two women are on the soil strewn stage. One begins to wail, which elicited laughs from the audience. (When in doubt, laugh). A second woman joins in and the sound perfectly imitates an air-raid siren. Then: no laughter. Instead, silence. Bausch, born in 1940 would have heard those sounds and known silence, and seen violence.
The whole tone of the piece is of violence, often sexual violence. The Red Swimmer stalks the stage menacingly. A man grabs men and women onstage and pushes them to the ground demanding they say a word, and assaults them until they do. Earlier he has screamed of his desire to kill and to rape. A large group of men chase and catch a lone man and woman multiple times, forcing them to kiss, before releasing them. A woman in desperation runs in a large circle until she nearly collapses. A woman is ritually slashed, only to offer herself to be slashed again. See above for the woman who slaps herself.
Laughter again: A woman imitates drowning, and a man imitates rescue – complete with throwing off his clothes – funny because this blasted heath has no water, nor any life. It is the polar opposite of water, elementally different. At one point, the entire cast run onstage and flop about like fish. The effect is startling. (There’s lots of running in “Gebirge”.)
These moments, and even the “funny bits”, add up to a theatre of cruelty and damnation. Their human actors are brutish, stripped back to pure Sein. Being is all. Existence is questioned. Solipsistic doubt, and paucity of intimacy rear their heads. At one point a character checks another’s pulse. Then checks his. Then tickles her, then tickles himself. No reaction from him to the tickling. We know it is impossible to tickle oneself. The solipsistic question remains for that character. If as Nietzsche also said, truth should come hand in hand with laughter, is he an untruth: just a shell? We might modify a dictum, which Bausch always questions: “I feel therefore I am”. In “Gebirge” as with a lot of Basuch, one doubts characters feel, or think. They are instruments, carnality entire: drowning in facticity.
It is as if the entire Basuchian vision here is almost Broschian: that the world is punishment, couched in this grand guignol of dead souls. This is not so much dance as bleak existential commentary: we witness humanity cavorting around in a patch of dirt and see it in all its animality, corporeality and worse, absurdity. It succeeds because of its Formalistic premise: to shock and make new. Thus, Futility and pain, perversion of being, and of any vital human warmth, thus exertion, and unabating masochism. A better work of early Postmodern mechanics and late 20th Century concerns would be hard to imagine.
That is not to say it is a masterpiece: the second act is the weakest. The Christmas tree section feels a little like padding, for one thing. And yet, it all works, just about. It doesn’t edify, or elate, but involves and “confronts” through play and danger.
The dancers are never less than committed. Their exertions are astonishing, and some of the abuses they must endure, terrifying. At one point, the Red Swimmer flicks lit matches slowly at the cast. A poor lady got one right in the face. So too, the chased couple are violently manhandled, and some reactions to the man who demands words, genuinely hair-raising in the vehemence. (Said one dancer of a Bausch piece: “In one rehearsal, all the men in the company had to do six ways of groping you and kissing you and it was just like being raped… I finally broke down crying,” link here) The ensemble’s synchronicity in the “parade” – a slow perverse handjive – would shame the Mariinsky swans.
This cry on the mountain is a keening howl of lost souls, as if Nietzsche’s abyss had finally cast back a reply to us: one of demented, Dionysian laughter.
As a comment on music, I had expected the usual Sadler’s Wells deafening experience, but instead tunes by Heinrich Schütz, Henry Purcell, Piaf, Felix Mendelssohn and Billie Holiday played softly. (The first time I heard a Billie Holiday song in the work, I knew Strange Fruit would follow, and follow it did.)