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Fear, joy, cruelty, sadness and humour are often rolled into one in the two dozen discrete scenes in Nelken, presented on a stage adorned with thousands of pink and red carnations.

Morning in the garden of good and evil

Oct 21, 2016 5:50 AM

THERE is one gorgeously enigmatic moment in Tanztheater Wuppertal's classic Nelken (Carnations) that best encapsulates the frequently competing forces at work in the vision of Pina Bausch, the legendary founder of the German dance company.

A woman sits at the edge of the stage as four men approach her from a distance with a table. They place the table closer and closer to her, and take turns throwing themselves violently onto its surface.

From the helpless and hysterical yelps she makes, the scene seems to suggest the impending threat of rape and brutality. But the men never actually touch her - and the mixture of fear and absurdity eventually collapses into pure camp.

Nelken, a 1982 work that helped cement Bausch's reputation as an original, is strung by moments like these - moments so peculiar and poised they could easily tip into comedy or tragedy. What holds them together, despite their outward strangeness, is the always relatable human emotions at their core. Fear, joy, cruelty, sadness and humour are often rolled into one in the roughly two dozen discrete scenes, presented on a stage adorned with thousands of pink and red carnations.

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Bausch, who died in 2009, had created Nelken in memory of her childhood in postwar Germany. Then, she had found that her simple girlish joys and optimism sat uneasily with her country's horrific World War II past.

This paradoxical reality ultimately inspired Nelken, and is illustrated most directly in one scene where a group of men in loose dresses happily pretend to be bunnies hopping around the carnations, watched over by four po-faced men with guard dogs. Suddenly one po-faced man pulls up one of the bunny-hoppers and ominously says: "Passport please." The mood instantly turns dark as the official goes through the latter's passport, before murmuring: "You may continue hopping."

Though this situation is pure nonsense, the themes of power, control and subjugation of the innocent are clear and universal.

Nelken was created some 34 years ago, yet the work retains its power to startle, provoke and inspire. It's hard to believe this three-night run at the Esplanade's annual da:ns festival represents Tanztheater Wuppertal's first performance in Singapore in 40 years. One can only hope it won't take another 40 before the dance company performs here again.

  • The Esplanade's da:ns festival is now on till Oct 23. Highlights include the Batsheva Dance Company playing on Oct 21 and 22