George Dorris

Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice, 1975 and 2012

In 1975 Jack Anderson and I wandered around Europe for three months, from Paris to Copenhagen, seeing dance, opera, and many other things. One of the most memorable moments from that trip was when we saw Pina Bausch’s Orpheus und Eurydike in Wuppertal. After having staged Gluck’s Iphigenia in Taurus in 1974, during her first season there, the next year she set his Orpheus before going on to create the astonishing series of works that have made her famous.

In 1991 she revived Orpheus for her company and again in 1993 for the Paris Opera Ballet, a production that was filmed in 2008 and then brought to the Lincoln Center Festival for three performances, July 20-23, 2012, at the David H. Koch Theater, the recently renamed New York State Theater, where I finally saw it again. Unfortunately, Jack, my partner of many years, was recovering from an operation and unable to attend, so for him and for some other friends I wrote down some thoughts on seeing this remarkable work again.

Seeing Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice again after thirty-seven years suggests how things change, how my perceptions have changed, and how much they remain the same. Seeing it now at Lincoln Center with the Paris Opera Ballet was in itself quite a change from seeing it in the opera house in Wuppertal with Bausch’s company. The State Theatre (as I still think of it) is large and quite grand, if scarcely a patch on the troupe’s home, the Palais Garnier, while the Wuppertal Theater was a smallish, functional postwar building with few charms. The Paris Opera dancers are polished and beautiful, with superb carriage and superb technique. Bausch’s dancers were a far more eclectic group, yet with more personality in part because they were so varied in shape and size.

Above all, though, what remains is the beauty of the work, from the simple, noble opening, with mourning groups set against the immobility of Orpheus, the unexpected activities of the damned, the grace of the blessed spirits, and the great scene when Orpheus finally loses Eurydice before we return to the opening scene for an unhappy ending. (Bausch uses a version of the score that replaces Gluck’s happy ending with a repeat of the opening chorus consoling the mourning Orpheus. This version, I believe, was pioneered by Wieland Wagner and one that I’m sure appealed more to Bausch than Gluck’s original.)

What were the differences? Certainly not commitment, for the Paris dancers seemed to be giving their all to this work, but first of all in the different use of weight, However much these dancers tried, they couldn’t match the groundedness of Bausch’s company then—or, I suspect, now. The Paris dancers were also far more uniform, while even when moving together the Bausch dancers remained individuals, distinct within the group.

Inevitably many things seemed different from what I remembered—or had I forgotten the suggestions of Wigman in the way the mourning groups moved in the opening scene, or the relative tameness of the dances of the blessed spirits? The work also seemed longer, but then I don’t remember the long pauses for changes of scene or an intermission—and neither did Jack when I asked him afterward. One example of how things felt different was the scene with the damned, in which a woman moves across the stage carrying a loaf of bread, as if it were her last tie to the world above. In Wuppertal this image haunted me, but now it barely registered as she moved with the others.

The singing was again at a high level, although now the chorus was in the pit rather than singing from the side boxes as in Wuppertal and the orchestra was a fine “period” one. I was again struck by the effective way in which Orpheus, Eurydice, and Amor were each paired with a singer who sometimes moved with the character and at other times one held a position while the other moved. This proved especially powerful during the struggle when Eurydice begged Orpheus to look at her and his grief as she died again. In all, the essence of Bausch was indeed here.

I should note that the performance I saw, on July 21, 2012, the opening night of this production, had Stéphane Bullion as Orpheus, Marie-Agènes Gillot as Eurdyice, and Muriel Zusperreguy as Amor, accompanied by Maria-Riccarda Wesseling, Yun Jung Choi, and Zoe Nicolaidou, with the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and Chor conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock.

It’s famously impossible to go home again—or to bathe in the same river twice. Certainly nothing now could match the shock of seeing Bausch’s work for the first time in 1975. Then her name barely registered with us and we were only there because our friend Horst Koegler had recommended we see it and had arranged the tickets. We were toward the end of a long trip that was then taking us from Cologne to Düsseldorf and Amsterdam (where we saw a well-sung but stodgily staged Orpheus that also used that Wieland Wagner ending) and the night after Wuppertal we saw the first performance of John Neumeier’s fine version of Mahler’s Third Symphony in Hamburg – and after that on to Copenhagen for Bournonville, among other delights.

It was a wonderful time, but nothing we saw on that trip struck either of us as strongly as that evening, June 14, 1975, in Wuppertal—and nothing can replace the memory of it. The Paris Opera Ballet, however, has now made Bausch’s Orpheus its own, bringing it to a world far beyond Wuppertal, and we are all the richer for it. My only regret was that this time Jack wasn’t able to share the experience with me.


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