wet earth

A Moving Performance of Feelings

Finally, there is a 3-D movie to be excited about.

“Pina,” directed by Wim Wenders, is a tribute and celebration of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009 at the age of 68.  Bausch’s stunning dances take the viewer to the furthest edge of raw emotion, and when filmed in 3-D, the distance between viewer, performer and stage seems to collapse, heightening the already considerable emotional impact.  The effect is mesmerizing.

Wenders also stretches the documentary genre by staging his interviews with individual dancers as performances.  We hear the words of a dancer, spoken in one of the many languages represented by Bausch’s international troupe, but the dancers themselves, on film, do not speak.  Instead, their faces express their words.  Though seated, they are dancing, dancing with their faces, with their memories and stories of Pina.  Their words seem to float outside their bodies—in 3-D, the subtitles literally do appear to float in an intermediate, hovering space—and this turns the most basic tool of the documentarian, the seated interview, into a kind of dance, a moving performance of feelings.

Most 3-D films of the last few years have used the format to impress or startle the viewer into a state of vigilant excitability.  Here, the technology serves the very meaning of dance: to explore the dimensionality of the human body in space, and to express the varied dimensions of human emotion and connection.

In one fascinating scene, two veterans of the dance company reminisce about Pina as they stand next to a small-scale model of a stage.  As Wenders turns his camera to the small diorama, its diminutive stage comes alive with actual dancers and props.  It’s a technical trick, yet also a brilliant staging of the way memory works.  For the dancers, the model is not a lifeless shell, it’s a portal for remembering.

The dance which they, and the film’s audience, watch, “Cafe Müller,” was incorporated by Pedro Almodovar into the opening of his movie “Talk to Her” (with Bausch herself as one of the dancers), and the themes of the dance are also those the Spanish director has explored throughout his career: the stripped-bare, paradoxical desperation for both closeness and freedom, intimacy and escape, the strange and familiar violence of human need.  In “Cafe Müller,” a frantic woman careens across a room while a man hurls chairs out of her way; a woman keeps falling out of a man’s arms and keeps throwing herself back into his embrace; the great English soprano Jennifer Vyvyan sings the haunting lament from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”—“Remember me,” she cries, as if to be forgotten is the worst of all crimes.

Pina, and “Pina,” will not be forgotten.  “Pina” is also about the community of dance artists she gathered, supported, nurtured and transformed.  Early in the film, Wenders shows a breathtaking performance of “Rite of Spring” on a stage transformed into an expanse of dark earth.  Moving with the fierce sounds of Stravinsky’s primal score, the dancers become streaked with dirt and sweat.  This is art that leaves traces, on body and soul, and one understands from the spoken interviews the depth of the company’s enduring love of their departed mentor and guide.

“Pina” is currently playing at the Osio in downtown Monterey, though not in 3-D; I strongly urge interested viewers to make the drive up to Santa Cruz, where it is showing in 3-D in the grand Del Mar Theatre on Pacific Street.  Pina Bausch’s life-affirming dances are theatrical, expressionistic, symbolic, elemental.  Wenders’ achievement is to bring us close to the dream of art: to capture and convey the limitless dimensionality of life.

The Art of Arranging

When you are five grown men who play oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon together for a living, you need a lot of flexibility when it comes to repertoire.  There are just not very many pieces written for oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon.  Yet to the creative mind, this situation presents more opportunities than obstacles.

Calefax, a Dutch quintet appearing this Friday, February 24, at Sunset Center in Carmel, has established itself as a highly original band of musical adventurers over the last 25 years, choosing and arranging music from the last eight centuries to fit their unique constellation.  For their performance in Carmel, they will perform their own arrangements of music by Debussy, Grieg, Shostokovich, and J. S. Bach.

Bach is a composer whose music sounds good on any instrument, in any combination—its matchless structural integrity can survive any form of manipulation.  I am greatly anticipating Calefax’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of the most staggering achievements in the history of art.  Bach’s Variations, originally written for solo keyboard, are composed of multiple and contrasting voices that harmonize and play against each other, and it will be fascinating to hear how Calefax has divvied up Bach’s gorgeous weave of voices among the five reed instruments.

The other works on the program, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, selections from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, and Grieg’s Holberg Suite, were also originally written for piano (Grieg later arranged his Suite for string orchestra), and it is interesting to look at this connection through the lens of jazz.  While the piano is the quintessential jazz instrument, appreciated for its depth and range of textures, sounds, and colors, for many jazz musicians, the heart of the jazz experience is the small-knit jazz combo.  The structure of the small ensemble creates a space for endless invention and improvisation, an interplay of distinct and individual voices combining in creative, always-shifting counterpoint.  This is one reason Bach continues to be so cherished and influential among jazz artists.

Debussy and Shostakovich are among the many 20th-century composers who were influenced by the new rhythms and harmonies of jazz—Shostakovich even wrote a Suite for Jazz Orchestra—and while there is nothing notably jazzy about the music of Edvard Grieg, his Holberg Suite is a collection of pieces inspired by courtly dances, evoking a time when listening to music meant getting up to dance, or at least tap your toes.

I expect there will be a great deal of tapping toes at Calefax’s concert, including those of the musicians, who always perform standing up, like jazz players.

Calefax Reed Quintet, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Friday, February 24, at 8:00 pm, at Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel.  (831) 625-2212.

Reversal of Feeling

“There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened,” remarks one of the characters in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” which Actors Collective is presenting in a taut production smartly directed by Jeffrey T. Heyer at the Carl Cherry Center, in Carmel.  “There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.”

This challenging and richly ambiguous play is about the jagged uncertainties of love and memory.  Deeley (Greg Falge) and Kate (Julie Hughett) are a married couple living in the English countryside, in a house near the sea.  They are visited by Anna (Nina Capriola), an old friend Kate hasn’t seen in twenty years.  As the visit unfolds, small-talk niceties and recollections soon give way to more loaded suggestions of past entanglements.  Deeley tells the story about how he met Kate at an out-of-the-way movie theatre in London, but was Kate alone when he met her?  More than one scenario is eventually raised.  Other remembered encounters begin to fill in the story, but shadows of conflict and confusion remain.  The stakes of this uncertainty are heightened considerably as the play nears its spine-tingling conclusion, when dark mysteries in Kate and Anna and Deeley’s shared past are explored.

Explored, but not solved.  “Old Times” is not one of those “trick plays” in which there is a sudden reversal that changes everything you thought you understood, clearing the way for a tidy dénouement.  Instead, Pinter’s extraordinary cut-glass prose designs a kind of textual trompe-l’oeil, in which distinctions between surface and depth, past and present, self and other, cannot be trusted.  “You can’t say where it begins or ends,” Kate says of the sea, but she might be talking of the world of the play.  This may unsettle some viewers.  I found it thrilling.

Because of its surreal aspects, its emphasis on language and repetition, and its structural complexity, “Old Times” runs the risk of being chilly and remote.  Lives, memories, and identities are dissected with an almost clinical scrutiny.  (The production’s one distracting off-note was Anna’s costume, which to my eyes resembled a doctor or lab researcher’s coat.  Perhaps this effect was intended.)  Fortunately, the actors breathe warmth and feeling into Pinter’s austere script.  Capriola’s Anna is vibrant and alert, with a store of rivalrous emotion lying under a mask of friendly bonhomie.  When she and Deeley trades lyrics from old tunes by Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers and Hart, her eyes shift from playful to cutting in a flash.

As Deeley, Falge portrays an elegant Englishman bound to certain traditions and expectations.  One of his most significant displays of anger is toward an imagined class of wealthy foreigners, “a slim-bellied Cote D’Azur thing we know absolutely nothing about, a lobster and lobster sauce ideology we know fuck all about.”  Yet despite his burst of anger this, too, is a form of protection—the mask of class rage.  Deeley’s character is pure concealment, until at the end, when it isn’t.  The effect is powerfully moving.

Kate is a fantastic role for Hughett, a sensitive, expressive actress.  Kate is a dreamy, enigmatic woman who loves softness, who deplores edges and “harsh lines.”  There are moments when Anna and Deeley speak of her in the third person, as if she weren’t there.  Yet it is Kate whose actions and stories form the core of the play’s mystery.  And it is the dreamy Kate who interrupts her husband’s tirade against the “beautiful Mediterranean people” with the swiftly slicing “If you don’t like it go.”

All three characters undergo reversals of feeling as the points on this three-cornered map of desire and betrayal shift and unsettle whatever sense of reality has just been established.  “Old Times” is a Rubik’s Cube of a play: you can keep twisting and turning and still never get all the parts to match up.  Though Pinter denies us the satisfaction of narrative closure, isn’t his open-ended depiction of human emotion more ultimately truthful than case closed or happily ever after?

“Old Times,” through Saturday, March 3, at the Carl Cherry Center, 4th and Guadaloupe, in Carmel.  (831) 595-7053.