More on Peter Pabst’s collaboration with choreographer Pina Bausch through her death in 2009, including her last work, Como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si...(Like moss on a stone…), which was seen in the 2012 Next Wave Festival at BAM…
Pabst and Bausch also did their own lighting: “No room or time to hire a real lighting designer,” he admits. “We would do it during the last two nights, often completing the lighting between the dress rehearsal and the premiere. A regular lighting designer would commit suicide. And you need a crew willing to work from midnight to 6am. But I cannot think about design without thinking about the lighting,” Pabst adds. “The lighting illuminates the idea of the set.”
The head of lighting in Wuppertal made a light plot and prepared the hang for the vocabulary for each new piece. “We worked together to create the vocabulary,” notes Pabst. “For every tour we need a touring plot, but did not consider any restrictions in terms of design based on the tour. Each piece was designed for Wuppertal where it premiered before setting out on tour.
"There is no point in considering the tour in advance—that is why I travel with them and reinvent things once we see if the set fits in the theatre," says Pabst. "Or there is some redesign or rearranging. Every time is different, based on the color of the walls in the theatre, or the different gear in each space. Adapting the lighting takes time.”
Como… is one of Pabst’s more abstract pieces. The set is a visually striking, yet minimalist space: a white floor in a black box-style stage: “I saw so much natural beauty in Chile, which inspired Pina to do this piece,” he points out. “The landscapes were overwhelming, so perhaps the abstract set is a reaction to that, not showing any of it.” The set, as a result, is starkly black and white, with a few projections adding an extra layer of visual interest at times.
Even with the simplicity of the set for Como… there is hidden complexity. The beautiful white floor begins to move, and breaks into pieces like a surface of ice starting to crack apart. It opens and then closes again a few times. "There is no motivation; I never try to tell my own story. That is the most common mistake of set design. The dancers or actors should tell the story. The sets should enable them to do so,” notes Pabst.
The floor for Como… is actually heavy, yet has to move silently. “In order to make it move smoothly, we had to reduce friction, and make it slide. It was tricky work,” explains the designer. “When it was finished we moved it for the first time, with dancers on the floor so they could feel it move.”
The floor was built in layers, with the first layer to reduce friction and allow the floor to move more smoothly, then the mechanical floor itself. And it had to be silent in terms of the dancers when they moved on it, and not have a hollow resonance.
A puzzle of physics, mechanics, and motors helped Pabst find his solution: “The floor had to be independent from the theatre and it had to tour, which meant it had to exist and work in itself.” As a result, the hydraulics used to move the floor tour with the company.
In recalling the Palace of the Popes, Pabst notes: “There was no point in fighting against it. It was risky but gave me a huge freedom I would never have in theatre or opera. It was ultimately very satisfying.” And a perfect example of Pabst’s scenic credo: “A set is not just beautiful. It has to create a world for the dancers to tell their story.”
The first time I saw Pina Bausch and the Wuppertal Tanztheater was in the summer of 1983 at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, where the open-air theatre is in a courtyard with 90’ mediaeval stone walls. The piece was Nelken, featuring Pabst’s unexpected décor with thousands of pink carnations creating a carpet on the stage, and German shepherds with their trainers along the perimeter—an image (and an evening) never to be forgotten.