Two glass doors revolve in a circular enclosure. A woman is flushed on to the dark stage by the revolving door and darts between the empty chairs, then disappears stage right. This is the beginning of Café Müller, a piece by Pina Bausch. If it were up to Boris Charmatz, who became the director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal last August, this piece would never end. Repertoire begins with the syllable ‘re-’. It stands for repetition and return, and in this case also for Henry Purcell’s aria “Remember Me”. And for ‘revolving door’ – a door that circles around in endless movement and yet always remains open.
Marietta Piekenbrock: You have announced three casts for the restaging. How do you prepare three new casts for a piece that was originally performed by very charismatic dancers?
Boris Charmatz: First of all, I should say: I did not choose Café Müller. We are in the first season of my directorship; it’s a transitional year. Most of the programme was already confirmed when I started. I love Café Müller, it’s a jewel. But I’m sure I would have chosen to do an ensemble piece first, in order to work with as many people in the company as possible. Pina Bausch developed Café Müller with six dancers. That’s a small group, almost like a chamber music ensemble Kammerspiel-cast (oder :chamber play cast). Three times six is eighteen. Makes eighteen young dancers who can discover the piece for themselves. The company as a collective is as important to me as Pina Bausch’s repertoire. That’s why we are rehearsing Café Müller in three casts.
Who are the dancers who have been chosen for the restaging?
It’s a mix. They include dancers who have been a part of the ensemble for a while, either permanently or as guest artists, and others who have joined recently. There is no hierarchy, no first, second or third cast. Dancers new to the ensemble of the Tanztheater used to have to wait two, three, four, even seven years before they first came into contact with Café Müller. That’s a pity, because Café Müller makes you understand a lot about the pieces that were created afterwards. They all revolve around the theme of desire, lust and libido. It’s not about finding out who can dance like Pina Bausch, like Dominique Mercy or like Nazareth Panadero. I’m not really interested in looking for similarities. Especially as the answers are always sad. Pina Bausch is no longer alive. Dominique Mercy is incomparable.
When you watch the early recordings from the late 1970s and early 1980s, you realise that the pieces from that time are very much about relational energies, about desiring and not desiring. About the circulation of desire between the characters. About whether Malou and Dominique will find each other or not. About how Pina Bausch sees everything, even though her eyes are closed. This energy of desiring each other is fascinating to me. When it came to casting, I imagined that I was working on a feature film and trying to bring people together between whom something happens, between whom feelings fly back and forth, who are not just reacting in technical ways. It seems like a small detail. But in the first rehearsal photos by César Vayssié you can already clearly see that Café Müller is a pièce de désir.
The announcement is for the premiere of a restaging. What does that mean exactly? Is it a reprise, a transcription, an absorption? Or an appropriation? I’m thinking of Flip book, your meta-Cunningham.
The libido of appropriation is always huge. But I proceed very cautiously. I didn't come to say, “Hello, I'm Boris Charmatz and we're now working on a new version of Café Müller.” My ethics are different. It's more that I observe how the company is used to working and where I might find my place in that process. There will be no invasive, heavy-handed gestures. But, of course, I do propose a direction. For example, working only with dancers who are dancing the role for the first time; or rehearsing three casts in parallel; or deciding who dances which role, especially deciding who takes Pina Bausch’s role. One of the three performers in this role, Taylor Drury, who is from Canada, is very young. In the past, the role has been filled by a more mature dancer. Or Naomi Brito, who at 25 is our youngest dancer and a trans woman. She is from Brazil. Emma Barrowman, also from Canada, is our third Pina Bausch. That's just one example of how we deal with the question of who can embody the ideal Pina Bausch in 2023. It's not just about choosing the six best dancers for Café Müller, but about developing a model for how we relate to each other.
You are a choreographer and a dancer. Did you never think about performing in Café Müller yourself?
There’s a nice story about that. Salomon Bausch asked me: Why don’t you lead the rehearsals? And why don’t you dance in Café Müller? My first reaction was, “No, no, impossible, out of the question. I won’t be dancing in it.” Nevertheless, I am very grateful to him for the question. Not only was it generous, it also took away some of the pressure. It allowed me to feel freer. By asking this question, he opened up a space and legitimised me thinking about such things. I have danced works by Isadora Duncan and Vaslav Nijinsky, and for Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Tino Sehgal. So it is not out of the question that I will also dance for Pina Bausch one day. The piece was last performed in 2018. I want the current version to stay in the repertoire for several years, so that we can dance it every season. But there is a second reason why I have avoided thinking about this question. I am coming in as an outsider. I feel that this outside perspective is very important for our work. When you are dancing, you cease to be an observer. As a rehearsal director and dancer in one, you lose your sense of distance. Right now, the company needs an artistic director and not a muddle of functions. Maybe I’ll see it differently in a year’s time, but that’s my sense at the moment.
Sound plays a big role in some of your pieces, and others are set to important works from music history. In étrangler le temps it is Maurice Ravel, in Odile Duboc’s free interpretation boléro 2. In 10000 gestes it is Mozart’s monumental Requiem, and your next creation, Liberté Cathédrale, involves organ music. What does the music of the baroque composer Henry Purcell mean to you?
The dancers in my previous pieces all still have different musical works in their ears and on their lips. Including the music of Purcell. At the end of inifi, Solène Wachter hums a melody from King Arthur. In Café Müller, it’s the female arias from the masque The Fairy Queen and the lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas. I am very happy with the live orchestra conducted by Patrick Hahn and the wonderful voices of Ralitsa Ralinova and Jóhann Kristinsson. But I also wonder if the musical direction could not be collectivised somehow. I can imagine the dancers singing on stage. All humming Dido's lament together. If Café Müller is a jewel, then Purcell definitely has something to do with it. His arias contribute to the intensity. Their beauty and melancholy are unique; they permeate everything that happens on stage. Perhaps, in the future, Purcell's arias will already be heard as the audience slowly enters the auditorium.
Since the era of modern dance, the name of the director or choreographer is usually identical with the name of the company. The name refers to a certain personal style. I’m thinking of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and also William Forsythe. The Tanztheater Pina Bausch under the direction of Boris Charmatz – that’s a hybrid situation. What is it like for you as a choreographer to work with an ensemble that carries the name of another choreographer in its title?
I like the term hybrid. Of course, I am also continuing my own work as a choreographer. The move to Wuppertal will change my dance, because I am in a constant dialogue with Pina Bausch, like everyone here. The company, the audience, the press, the technicians, the administration – the entire organism is involved with the repertoire, the embodied memories and the present reality of her pieces. You too, as we are speaking now. As I said, I have danced for many choreographers. Even if I am not dancing in Café Müller, I still feel a strong connection between her work and what I have done so far.
When you took over the Centre choréographique national de Rennes et de Bretagne in 2009, you renamed it Musée de la danse - Museum of Dance a dancing museum and launched a project that addressed our modern dance heritage. That, too, was a hybrid situation, an intertwining of the idea of a museum and the possibilities of the stage. Do you have similar plans for Wuppertal?
The Musée de la danse was a special project. It was a new institution that we developed from the ground up. We were completely free. The Tanztheater Wuppertal is 50 years old. It’s a completely different situation. I, too, am 50 years old – I, too, have a history. A lot is coming together here now: the repertoire of Pina Bausch, of me, of our Musée de la danse. In Montpellier this summer I am dancing À bras-le-corps. The piece will be thirty years old in January. It's younger than Café Müller, but still. How we bring all these threads together, what type of institution we develop… it will become clear in the next few years.
Conflicts in communities and the social and aesthetic upheavals that often accompany them are an important source of gestures and movements for you. The 1970s were a decade of turning points in dance history. In 1968, the year of the student revolts, Pina Bausch, who has up to then been a soloist with the Folkwang Ballet in Essen, begins to create her own pieces. The following year she succeeds Kurt Jooss, her former teacher, as the director of the company. In 1973, the classical choreographer John Cranko dies suddenly at the age of 45 and Mary Wigman is laid to rest in Berlin. In the same year, the director of the Wuppertal Opera, Arnold Wüstenhöfer, appoints Pina Bausch as the director of the Wuppertal Ballet, which she soon renames Tanztheater Wuppertal. It was a time of change, during which it was unclear whether expressionist dance would lose its air of novelty and a new classicism would prevail in Germany. Hindsight affords some clarity. The opposite happened. Pina Bausch becomes an international icon of postmodern expressionism. Is this historical context significant for the restaging? How much of it will be history, how much new departures?
I did originally plan to work more with the archive, the recordings. But I live in the here and now. And I realise that my strength and energy are limited by the fact that I wasn’t there, I never danced with the company. My story is a different one. I come from Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer. I am familiar with German dance history, Susanne Linke, Reinhild Hoffmann, Pina Bausch. I have worked with Raimund Hoghe. The German culture and language are very close to me. But what is needed in the studio right now is someone who comes in from the outside and brings a younger perspective. When I joined the rehearsals, I had the impression that the team of rehearsal directors around Barbara Kaufmann, Héléna Pikon, Robert Sturm and Magali Caillet-Gajan pays very close attention to what and how the dancers in the original cast danced, felt and thought. It’s not that I am not interested in the museum aspect of the work, but at the moment I am concentrating on what is happening now: Monday morning, 11.00 a.m., I get off the Brussels-Wuppertal train, go straight from the station to the rehearsal stage for Café Müller, while in the studio next door we are rehearsing my new piece Liberté Cathédrale. That's the situation. The dancers need a breath of fresh air, they need someone to throw open the windows and doors. They need to feel that they are dancing in 2023, that they are not dancing Dominique Mercy's role, but their own. I want to be able to see how Christopher Tandy is doing that morning. This is his life; this is my life. We have to see that on stage. What is the piece saying to us today? Why am I here? Those are the questions we have to find answers for. I would love it if everyone could dance Café Müller in the future. The entire Tanztheater, the audience, perhaps even me at some point. I see the piece as a laboratory.
As a laboratory? What do you mean by that?
Next week's premiere is an important step, but still only the first stage. A first step. I'm learning, I'm observing, we're rehearsing, we're experimenting with different casts. Again, I don't know if I would have chosen Café Müller for a first approach. I love the piece, but I would have preferred an ensemble piece to start with. We are used to thinking in opposites: older generations versus younger generations, men against women, rehearsal directors against dancers. What we need is a new energy of solidarity. I don’t believe that a repertoire piece like Café Müller needs to be changed. I didn’t come to Wuppertal to say, this costume needs to go or the chairs need to stand in a different position. It is more subtle than that. I am interested in the question of how these gestures and movements, which come from the past, can be danced by bodies living in the present. It is a modest but important question. Café Müller is a piece of history with a new present and future. That's what I mean when I say laboratory. Rolf Borzik created a transitional space. The empty chairs are reminiscent of a waiting room. He will have had his reasons for choosing a revolving door. A revolving door is a door that never closes. My dream is that Café Müller never ends. I would like to develop an 8-hour version that functions like an exhibition that you can enter at any time.
Pina Bausch as an artist wasn’t afraid of provocation ...
Yes, she was radical in her own quiet way. Her successor cannot be a semi-risk-taker or semi-radical. Then he wouldn’t be a good successor. He has to burn for the art. And the art has to burn as well. I have this Yiddish song going through my head: “Es brennt, Brüder, ach, es brennt” - “It’s burning, brothers! It’s burning!”
Brussels, Berlin, Wuppertal 01/2023