Letter from Epidaurus

Dressed typically in a classic black suit, her hair pulled back tightly into a bun, modern dance legend Pina Bausch bowed after her «Orpheus and Eurydice» success in Epidaurus on Friday. The audience saluted her with a standing ovation. Created as an exquisite work of barefoot dance for the Paris Opera Ballet, and offering a double set of dancers and singers, this rarely seen work by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1762) was one of the highlights of this year’s summer theater festival. Sitting some 13,000 people, the best-preserved ancient theater in Greece, on the west side of Mount Kynortion in the northeastern Peloponnese, was built at around 360 BC. In antiquity, as well as today, the theater was renowned for its excellent acoustics, symmetry and beauty. But such a huge theater located in the middle of nowhere? Well, in ancient times it wasn’t just to see a play that people came here. The Asclepieion at Epidaurus was the most celebrated healing center of the Classical world, the place where ill people went in the hope of being cured. Asclepius was the most important healer god of antiquity. Therefore, in order to find the right cure for their ailments, the sick, unwell and hypochondriacs spent a night in the enkoimitiria, a huge sleeping hall. In their dreams, the god himself would advise them what they had to do to regain their health. In his humorous way, writer Gore Vidal describes a scene at the spa in his novel «Live from Golgotha.» The prosperity brought by the Asclepieion enabled Epidaurus to also construct civic monuments, such as the huge theater that is still being used for performances. Maria Callas has sung here, and Pina Bausch thrilled audiences yesterday and the day before with an Orpheus and Eurydice who – contrary to Monteverdi’s and Gluck’s versions of the play – are not blessed with a happy end upon their return from Hades, that is, from the underworld. In the last scene, titled «Death,» when the ensemble files out most ceremoniously at the back, there are two Euridices draped one over the other, as Maria Riccarda Wesseling, in the part of Orpheus, sang the superb aria « Ah, I have lost her…» «You see, my Orpheus is not a hero, but a man with all the vulnerability of love,» Bausch said in an interview with the Le Figaro daily, when the work premiered in Paris some years ago. With her choreography, Pina Bausch (born in Solingen, Germany, in 1940) has given dance a new meaning as the head of the Wuppertal Dance Theater. In the beginning, she was dubbed the «wicked witch of German dance» for snubbing classics like the evergreen schmaltzy «Nutcracker.» Personally, I could maintain that I have been in the presence her grandmother. Well, not her real grandma in flesh, but her spiritual one. I mean Mary Wigman, who was the German dance legend par excellence. I had the great fortune to see her «Orpheus and Eurydice» at the opening of the new opera in West Berlin in 1961. It was by far more – shall use the dodgy word – «modern» than the Bauschian take in Epidaurus. Or did it seem that to me just because I was much younger then? Here it is necessary, I think, to say a few things about the great German dancer, choreographer and teacher Mary Wigman (1886-1973), who is considered the mother and founder of the modern dance movement. It was she who led dance away from its old forms and coined a new term in dance theater, and is credited with the innovation of expressionist dance, becoming the leading exponent of the new «Ausdruckstanz,» or expressionist dance movement in Germany, as well as being a pioneer of modern dance. Well, one reads and hears similar attributes and accolades of Pina Bausch. I was lucky to attend some of Wigman’s classes at her school at 35 Rheinbabbenalle in Berlin’s Roseneck district. She worked intensively, creating dances and developing her unique expressionist or «absolute» style of dance, which was independent of any literary or interpretive content. Just like Bausch’s shows, which are normally something like food for the unconscious. Wigman called this dance style «New German Dance,» partly to express its break from the sterility of the ever-prevalent classical ballet tradition and partly to reaffirm ancient principles of dance as an expression of human passion and aspirations. No doubt, one could wonder: Doesn’t the same occur in the Bausch productions? Don’t they also always come back to big questions about love, loneliness and the search for intimacy? Sure they do. Only after some observation – and after some 70 years’ distance – Pina Bausch’s work is more whimsical, funnier, even bawdy. It was at Wigman’s studio that I met one of the great Greek choreographers, Zouzou Nikoloudi, who choreographed probably the most celebrated Greek Aristophanes comedy, «The Birds.» This was a famed production directed by Karolos Koun, with sets and costumes by Yiannis Tsarouchis, and it is going to be revived for the last time today at the Herod Atticus Theater, half a century after its premiere. My advice is to go! And a last word on «Orpheus and Eurydice:» A very wealthy person, Zouzou Nikoloudi once directed, choreographed and staged the opera, covering all the costs for the dancers, chorus and singers. It was a most unfortunate production, since it was supposed to have had its premier on April 21, 1967 – the exact day of the of the military coup in Greece, which resulted in seven years of military rule. Quite understandably, the opera production was called off. Now, let’s remind the dance lovers among our readers that the Kalamata International Dance Festival, a prime event in Southeastern Europe, has just started and continues through July 30.