"This is the wettest work we have ever done," says Peter Pabst, a freelance designer based in Cologne, Germany, who has created the scenic tableaux for the Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal since 1981. Despite the unexpected death of the choreographer in June 2009, the company continues to tour and was seen last month in New York during the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, where the company first performed in 1983. In Vollmond, or Full Moon, water figures as the major scenic element, along with a large rock (23' deep x 9.8' wide x 13' high) that sits stage left and glistens when wet, as light grazes its manmade surface.
Bausch’s dancers are used to water, as another of her evening-length works, Arien, also features H2O on stage. Vollmond has an actual river, 5" deep, that runs across the entire width of the stage. “You don’t see the river at first,” Pabst says. “This is one of my Zen pieces—very calm, dark, and silent.” Yet four tons of water per minute are pumped from stage right to stage left. “You need very strong pumps to recycle the water from one side of the stage to the other,” adds Pabst, who admits, “I don’t think about the technical consequences when I design something and like it when everyone says, ‘This is impossible.’ Otherwise, I didn’t aim high enough. Then I like to invent the solution.” The river, which is drained and refilled with fresh water daily, is heated to 29°C (84°F) for comfort as the dancers splash, roll, and swim in it, wearing costumes with fabrics that cope well when wet.
In addition to the river, torrential rain pours from a sprinkler system overhead. “The water for the rain is pumped to the overhead pipes,” explains Pabst. “We travel with the entire system as we need exactly the same amount of pressure.” The only variable is the height of the stage house in each venue. The rain is lit from above and behind. “The drops take light like a lens and pass it on,” says Pabst, who tried many options before finding the proper non-slip floor that allowed the company to feel comfortable when the surface was both wet and dry. “I look outside traditional theatrical materials,” he adds.
Pabst often uses natural elements, such as water, liking the sensual way they blend with the dancers’ movement. “I don’t like high-tech on stage,” he admits. “It takes too much time to make it work, and I don’t like the possibility of technical failure. What I like is the way the set is replanted in each theatre. That way, my relationship with each piece stays alive in an intense manner.”