When the curtain opens on a stage blanketed in silk flowers, a beginner might think “Nelken” (“Carnations”) by Pina Bausch was about to offer some sweetly whimsical vision of poetry in three dimensions. That, however, would be to ignore dark underlying themes of power and love, and a certain sagacious humor, for which the late, great German choreographer is renowned.

First staged in 1982, and featuring a range of music from Franz Schubert to George Gershwin, “Nelken” returns to Japan after 28 years with performances at Saitama Arts Theater from March 16 to 19 by the Tanztheater Wuppertal company Bausch took over in 1973.

Entertaining and intriguing, physically humorous and mentally provocative, “Nelken” is relevant in today’s world “more than ever” according to Dominique Mercy, who is rehearsal director for this production.

“Pina’s works are done in such a way as to reveal meaning; she was not someone to dictate thought with a straightforward narrative. She was trying to reveal emotional concerns which we all must take action upon,” the French contemporary dancer/choreographer who joined the company in 1974 explained.

“That was one reason why she wanted to avoid explaining too many details in the programs. Pina wanted the audience to be ready to receive the work, to be involved, to become touched, to be concerned with the emotional connections unfolding on the stage,” he added.

Typical of Bausch’s tanztheater (dance-theater) creations, “Nelken” unfolds as an array of seemingly unrelated vignettes that slowly knit together with emotional connections: a dancer signs the words to Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”; men leap in flowing dresses, a woman drapes herself only in an accordion; sketches evoke at one turn a police state with guard dogs, at another, slapstick comedy with pratfalls among the blossoms.

Still now, nearly eight years after Bausch’s death at the age of 68, the company remains focused on preserving her legacy while also moving forward.

As Mercy put it, “Now that I no longer dance the piece, I can really see from the outside that there is something tremendously actual and acute explored in ‘Nelken’ without being too illustrative or instructive. It has so much to do with each of us and our own emotions; how situations and the world around us unfold.

“The challenge for all of us now slowly passing our roles onto other dancers, and so keeping the traditions alive,” he continued, “is to be free with all the indications we received from Pina, all the advice — while at the same time respecting the personalities of the dancers now taking our parts.

“It is very challenging and exciting to be at this moment in my life when I start to give away roles, to achieve this changing of the guard.”

The company now often returns to Japan, but Mercy well remembers its first visit, with a work titled “Kontakthof” in 1986: “From the first performance it was astonishing for us; we had the feeling the audience knew us already,” he recalled.

“It was such an enthusiastic, warm welcome, so we always look forward to coming back here.”

“Nelken” (“Carnations”) runs March 16-19 at Saitama Arts Theater. For more information, call 0570-064-939. Extra tickets have been added to this sold-out production; see www.saf.or.jp/en/stages/detail/3633 for details.

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