Field of Flesh

sARTurdays, Part 2

As soon as the performers appear, you are transported to a bygone era, entering a lost idyll, revisiting a romantic memory. The men in smart tweed suits and the women in sunny pastel dresses each carry a wooden lawn chair onto the stage, which is blanketed by stalks of pink carnations with heads raised skywards. Their thick-soled shoes make solid tocks with each step cautiously planted between the flowers. Eventually, they settle into their seats, facing various directions, lounging in tranquility. Perhaps one will whip out a pipe; perhaps another will produce a picnic basket.

What unfolds in the following two hours (half the original length, according to OG Dominique Mercy) is a ripping up of this pretty picture by various expressions of man’s destructive nature, leaving behind, in the end, basically a giant footprint of trampled carnations. Through a series of vignettes or small scenes that play out in the pink field, a few intimately related themes emerge: pain, power, persecution, and – the one I found most meaningful – punishment. Why do we like to tell others what to do (often against their wishes)? Why do we sometimes feel the need to scream those demands? When we scold a child, is it an act of correction or domination? Even if dividing people into categories of gender or ethnicity is inevitable, why must one group be deemed inferior to another, then punished to prove the fact? Why do we decide that we know what another human is worth, what he deserves, what he must swallow? Why do we allow ourselves to be punished – following orders, fulfilling demands? Why do we like to impose limits and restrict freedoms? Why do we draw boundaries, determine who are outsiders, then hunt them down like rabbits? When one man barks orders for another to bark like a dog, are both reduced to animals? Viewing the field from afar, you realize: It is all very absurd.

One particular vignette serves as a bookend in that it is performed near the start and reprised towards the end. A solitary man, standing tall among the flowers, signs along and mouths the words to The Man I Love with a straight face. The song is achingly beautiful and emanates the same Gershwin magic that moved me when I first heard Someone to Watch Over Me (sung by Kat McPhee on Idol). What the man doesn’t say, what he cannot express, all the more injects the scene with feeling. Like the men in dresses that feature prominently in other segments, the signing man is a figure of abomination. They are Alan Turings, alluding in an obvious way to the misguided persecution of homosexuals, representing less literally all that is arbitrarily spurned by shifting social codes.

Pina Bausch’s Nelken (German for Carnations) is the headliner at this year’s da:ns festival. It was first staged 34 years ago, roughly 4 years after the company’s last visit to Singapore. Two Saturdays ago, I was meant to watch it with Pat and Aru. Due to certain twists of events, however, we ended up watching it alone or not at all. (Pat, coming from a pole solo, was late and pushed to Circle 3; Aru shifted her ticket to Sunday, then realized too late that it was a matinee.) Having seen the posthumous documentary film Pina, I was excited to watch a full-length piece live. As with the film, Nelken was uneven, but I always love bold ideas, strong images, memorable movements and compelling compositions, all of which were delivered in spades.

In the postshow dialogue, an audience member noted the prevalence of humour in the show and asked if it was lost on certain cultures, implying that audiences who don’t laugh as much probably don’t get it. I didn’t find Nelken very funny. Many situations were comical on the surface, but laughter felt inappropriate because really we were witnessing acts of cruelty and oppression. When a gasping Fernando Suels Mendoza yells at the audience, What do you want to see! Huh? I can show you anything! You want to see tour en l’air? There! Tour en l’air! and proceeds to execute an impressive repertoire of ballet tricks, I felt more accused than amused. I’d say audiences who laugh too much probably don’t get it.

I don’t know the origin of the word nelke, but carnation (like carnage and carnal) comes from the Latin word for flesh, a reference to how its colour is a fleshlike rosy pink. In this light, then, what the performers stomp on may not be mere blossoms but may in fact be each other, in a field of flesh, and the performance is an examination of how hapless humans hold up against violence and brutality. Nelken reminds me of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful in its use of humour to mask pain, and of beauty to soften misery. Pina’s conclusion, too, is hopeful and life-affirming: The seasons march on, we learn to cope and survive, and in our small ways and in our small parts, we can always choose to make love, not war.

A negative review in The Straits Times remarks that Nelken is “fortuitously resonant” in the context of Europe’s current migrant crisis. Well, first of all, Europe’s troubles can hardly tune heartstrings everywhere else in the world. Secondly, Nelken needn’t find relevance in current affairs; it resonates because it is human and will continue to resonate until the day we become predominantly GMOs. Other detractors may dismiss the Pina Bausch company as practitioners of dance theatre (Tanztheater), an outmoded art form which incorporates more theatre than dance. Well, I came out of the theatre without a doubt that these were clearly dancers, and they were clearly dancing, and what I had experienced was clearly dance.

Thank you, Pina.
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