`TO me, this is not a bit understandable,'' a performer intones two hours into the latest stage spectacle by Pina Bausch, the German director and choreographer. The statement underscores the bewildering nature of the piece, an extravaganza of dance, drama, and performance art called ``Two Cigarettes in the Dark.''
The work had its American premiere last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Like Bausch's earlier work, it owes something to Brahms and Brecht, Kafka and cabaret, Freud and Fellini, Wagner and Weill. Yet it is anything but derivative. Indeed, ``Cigarettes in the Dark'' confirms Bausch's standing as one of the most original and challenging theater artists of her generation.
Tanztheater Wuppertal, the company Bausch founded in 1973, engages the audience for nearly three hours with images that are shocking, comic, and surreal. Theatergoers should be forewarned: Some of the women are partially nude and the imagery is often starkly violent.
Bausch's company is no stranger to BAM. In four previous visits it has been known to cover the stage with thousands of carnations or flood it with ankle-deep water.
For ``Cigarettes,'' set designer Peter Pabst has created a whitewashed room with numerous doors and vast windows that suggests a dreamscape or the subconscious mind. In contrast to this stark interior, the ferns and trees that are behind one of the windows suggest a primal garden.
Bausch also has a reputation for massive, messy productions, and she lives up to it here. The props - which include a cow, several bales of hay, 70 full-grown trees, and 150 live goldfish - might crowd the cargo hold of a Lufthansa airliner. Performers empty their pockets, and metaphorically their inner fears and desires, onto the stage in one madcap scene after another.
Helena Pikon plays a woman hounded by inner demons and an ax-waving antagonist. Oblivious to her plight, two men in tuxedos (Antonio Carallo and Jean-Guillaume Weis) flash winning smiles and perform party tricks. Along comes Dominique Mercy, who emerges from a fish tank, slaps about the stage in flippers, and begins to yodel.
The characters, who lack fixed identities, show a steady disregard for how their actions might affect others. Sometimes they project their wants and anxieties onto those around them, as Urs Michael Kaufman does quite literally when he projects a film onto Pikon's bare torso.
Again and again, elegance gives way to twisted behavior. A man in formal wear berates a woman as if she were a dog. A woman purposefully burns a hole in her velvet gown with a cigarette. Others, draped in fur coats, run headlong into walls.
At the same time, another character might happily pretend to fly or repeatedly ask no one in particular, ``Jakob, where is my sock?'' Matthias Burkert compounds these situations with his score, an equally disjointed and dramatic mix of baroque, romantic, and big-band music.
This juxtaposition of conflicting, simultaneous images yields dynamic scenes with no clear focal point. The stage becomes a flurry of activity, and theatergoers must decide for themselves where to look - and what to feel.
Bausch calls her medium ``dance theater,'' but her work subverts conventions honored by virtually every other choreographer and dramatist.
A viewer senses something deeper at work than just art for shock value. Bausch doesn't seem to be eliciting any particular emotion over another: She requires audiences to draw their own conclusions from profoundly ambiguous scenarios.
You can laugh - or gasp. It all depends on whether you focus on the grinning man who sips espresso while standing atop a log, or the woman being brutalized behind him. Not to laugh at him is to lack a sense of humor; not to recoil from the violence is to lack compassion.
The surreal episodes that make up the play would appear to have no relation to our daily lives, and yet Bausch seems to suggest that we make constant choices about where to turn our eyes.
* Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal performs at BAM, in its only American engagement this year, through tomorrow night.