Woman held up by others in Veza Fernández dance theatre Wenn Auge Mund Wird


Bausch rebooted: Veza Fernández’s Wenn Auge Mund Wird

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Wenn Auge Mund Wird (When Eye Becomes Mouth) by Veza Fernández
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Vienna-based Veza Fernández refracts Bauschian Tanztheater through a contemporary prism

Tanztheater. This performance genre, once revolutionary and now classic, was developed by German choreographer Pina Bausch in the early 1970s. As a form, Tanztheater mixes dance and choreography with theatrical elements such as text, songs and acting, and moves away from a linear narrative to focus instead on interwoven scenes and images. Bausch famously said about her work: ‘I’m not interested in how people move, but in what moves them.’ So what moves us in 2018?

More than 40 years after Bausch’s innovation, another woman proposes her own version of this hybrid genre. Like Bausch’s rebellious punk daughter, Vienna-based Veza Fernández seems to have inherited a taste for spectacle, a courageous tendency to romanticism and emotional oversharing, as well as an undeniably kitsch and yet delicately beautiful sense of aesthetics.

References to Bausch’s body of work are sincere and palpable in Fernández’s Tanztheater, as if this traditionally German/Austrian theatre form had been resurrected through choreographic lineage. Indeed, Fernández says ‘there are so many things that I find extremely interesting about Bausch’s work, like the concrete that becomes universal, the poetics, the collages that make sense, the expressivity. All of it is relevant today – maybe not so common any more, but still relevant.’ Yet her contemporary version of Tanztheater also marks a drastic departure from Bausch’s, and it is this constant oscillation between referencing and updating which makes her recent Wenn Auge Mund Wird (When Eye Becomes Mouth) so fascinating.

Women on stage in Veza Fernández’s Wenn Auge Mund Wird
A sea of pastel tulle and Riot Grrrl attitude: Veza Fernández’s Wenn Auge Mund Wird

The stage is covered with a sea of pastel tulle – reminiscent of Bausch’s expansive sets that carpet the stage with a single material: soil in Rite of Spring, water in Vollmond. Bausch also loved flowers: witness the mountain of delicate crimson petals in Der FensterPutzter or the field of powdery pink carnations in Nelken. Fernández takes this vintage floral romanticism and catapults it into the 21st century: her flowers are made of plastic, and sprout from white lace panties. Dancers are transformed into colourful life-size bushes by being tied up in tulle. They wear pretty floral dresses but also ripped denim and leather boots. We are miles away from Bausch’s Wuppertal and its ensemble of ballgowned, hair-whipping women.

Slightly reminiscent of Bausch’s 1978 Kontakthof, in which twenty men and women in evening attire get in line to perform seductive gestures towards the audience, Wenn Auge Mund Wird also begins with a striking lineup: nine of the eleven performers hold hands, standing still, facing the audience. Their focus is turned inwards – in fact, all their eyes are covered by a variety of delicate headgear, from paper masks to glitter beanies to upside-down lace panties, so it’s with their hands that they must explore, sense, touch. Eyes wide shut and ears wide open, they connect. Curious fingers palpate flesh, clutch pearls, stroke fur and caress skin, carefully feeling out the textures of one another’s body and costumes.

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The cast is composed solely of women and non-binary performers – a radical contrast with Bausch’s usual dualistic portrayal of gender

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This delicate sensory start gives us time to become familiar with the cast, which is composed solely of women and non-binary performers – a radical contrast with Bausch’s usual dualistic portrayal of gender. In Kontakhof for example, the entire piece portrays cis-gendered heterosexual men and women in opposition to each other, in a succession of quarelling and flirting scenes, always within the promise of (more or less consensual) sexual encounters.

Aesthetically and formally, Fernández ‘wouldn’t reject anything from Tanztheater’ but she finds its ‘strict separation of what it means to be a woman and a man rather problematic’. Here, she has chosen to work with individuals who can both challenge traditional gender roles as well as depict a wide landscape of possibilities. Queer people, non-binary individuals and hetero women share the stage, finding a common poetic language. Women are not defined in relation to a male counterpart, but rather build their own constellations. If patriarchy is at least in part what Sarah Ahmed describes as ‘women as existing only in relation to men; women as female relatives’1 then we see it deeply ingrained in Bausch’s work where women – whether daughters, lovers or sacrificial virgins – are constantly portrayed in affiliation with men. By removing cis-gendered males from the equation, Fernández seems to escape this fatal polarity and allows for intimacy to replace opposition: her performers weave a hybrid somatic practice of togetherness. Thus binary power struggles are replaced with a deep sense of care and communion. ‘I am fascinated with what happens when people engage with each other in relation to a vast theme or image,’ says Fernández, ‘when they become an extended version of each other.’

Photo of women lying down in Veza Fernández’s dance-theatre piece Wenn Auge Mund Wird
Binary power struggles are replaced with a deep sense of care and communion. Photo © Caroline Haberl

Furthermore, Fernández chose to challenge the ‘representation of women as eternal victims’ in Bausch’s work in her own approach to Tanztheater. Channelling Riot Grrrl culture – a sub-cultural movement that combines feminist consciousness with punk style and politics – the performers show not an ounce of martyrdom. They are brutally soft,2 defiantly loud, subtly provocative. Strumming electric guitars and shouting audacious melodies, the eleven sisters always seem to empower each other, as they literally dance to the beat of their own, live drums. ‘Are we roses or flowers?’ they chant, repeating the question like a feminist mantra or a poetic antifa ear-worm. ‘Look at my tongue!’ orders Marta Navaridas in a bilingual monologue, opening her mouth wide for the audience to watch her inside and out. Andrea Gunnlaugsdóttir, already in vertiginous stilettos, balances on the shoulders of Teresa Vitucci, still demanding: ‘Make me higher, I should be more elevated!’

In Fernández’s Tanztheater, patriarchal fairytales aren’t just exposed and criticised, as in Bausch’s interpretation of Blaubart, where women are pinned to the wall like a collection of dead butterflies; they are rewritten, transcripted for a new era. In 2018, not being male doesn’t equate with being a damsel in distress and in Wenn Auge Mund Wird, the protagonists are also poets, negotiators, stand-up comedians and lovers. ‘Small, crooked, strong, covered in snow,’ we hear punk singer Denice Bourbon say, as she retells the story of a girl who was locked up for being too loud. But in this bone-chilling lullaby, little white houses do not forecast a naive happily-ever-after ending, and the protagonist of this story, who was turned into a block of ice, finally transforms into a deadly knife.

In celebrating the hybridity of the theatrical genre as well as that of the cast, Fernández and her performers manage to morph the traditional German form into a bold political statement upon gender and togetherness. In their hands – and in their bodies and their beings – Tanztheater becomes relevant, and timely. 

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The non-binary performers of Veza Fernández’s Wenn Auge Mund Wird
‘In their hands – and in their bodies and their beings – Tanztheater becomes relevant, and timely.’ The cast of Veza Fernández’s Wenn Auge Mund Wird. Photo © Caroline Haberl

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1 Living a feminist life by Sarah Ahmed
2 salt by Nayyirah Waheed

See Veza Fernández’s online calendar for upcoming performances and workshops

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