Dominique Mercy, veteran of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, talks to BalletPosition about her legacy and plans for the company’s future.
Dominique Mercy is an extremely engaging man, whose easy smile always starts in his pale blue eyes. A dancer all his life – he is now in his mid-60s – his soft-spoken words, where his native French blends seamlessly with a light German accent, are complemented by a graceful and animated body language.
As a dancer, he was mesmerising.
He has much to be proud of. He was a key member of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch for most of his career, except for a brief hiatus in the mid-1970s; French-born, he is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and was awarded one of France’s highest honours, the Légion d’honneur, in 2013.
And in 2002 he received a New York Dance and Performance Award, a Bessie, for his role in Masurca Fogo, a piece inspired by the sunny cross-cultural mixture of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.
And yet Dominique Mercy is remarkably modest and unassuming. Asked about his Bessie, he laughs shyly.
“I didn’t expect it. Pina and the company had already won; and unexpectedly I suddenly heard that I had this award, specifically for the second solo I had in the piece, which is a solo I like very much.
“It was the first one for which Pina asked me to do something on a specific music. (…) Normally everybody just got busy with his own material and tried to construct something and then finally when she agrees or after she worked with it, then we look for the music.
“But because in the piece before I had done a solo with the same singer – it’s a fado – and she knew I liked very much this singer, she gave me this piece of music to do something.”
Very early into our conversation, there comes over me the palpable sense of another presence in the room. Pina is there, invoked again and again, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with profound sadness, sometimes even in the present tense.
I begin to understand why the French magazine Paris Match once described Mercy’s mission as “to perpetuate the soul of Pina Bausch.”
Life After Pina Bausch
Pina Bausch’s untimely death in June 2009 left the company without its founder, choreographer and leading light.
And what has gradually become clear is that deprived of her strong personality and unwavering direction, the company felt rudderless. Orphaned. So they just huddled together.
“I think it was very important for us as a company to keep together taking care of what she left us.”
Once the the initial shock had been overcome, Mercy and Robert Sturm, another company stalwart, where appointed co-directors, charged with keeping a company still in the grip of unspeakable grief going – somehow.
Almost immediately they were submerged in an avalanche of requests from companies all over the world to perform works which Pina Bausch had so jealously kept within the confines of Tanztheater Wuppertal and her own control.
“It was an invasion of demands and we really first put off everything because it was for us just unthinkable [to say], ‘OK Pina is gone, let’s just spread the work around the world.’”
In Pina Bausch’s lifetime only one company had performed a work created by her for Tanztheater Wuppertal, when Paris Opera Ballet were granted permission to stage her seminal work, The Rite of Spring.
Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring
It happened because Pina had formed a relationship of trust with the then Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Brigitte Lefèvre, who had twice invited Tanztheater Wuppertal to perform at the Garnier.
“When she was asked to do it the first time in 96/7, because she liked this house she was pleased and honoured with the idea to try to do a piece with another company; and so we did this and [Paris Opera Ballet] stayed the only company for a long time.
“In fact we almost did it with another company with Pina (…) but she got really anxious and decided not to do it because she was afraid there wasn’t a lot of time nor really what she thought she needed to achieve the work.
“I think this experience made her not want to… because she’s been asked quite often and also with other pieces, and she wouldn’t say ‘No,’ but she wouldn’t say ‘Yes’ somehow.”
Life goes on, though; and in March this year English National Ballet (ENB) become the second company to perform Pina Bausch’s 1975 Rite, considered by many the definitive reading of Stravinsky’s masterpiece.
It’s performed on a stage covered in soil; and Dominique Mercy has danced in it often.
“It’s a real experience when you sit out there looking at it, but it is a real experience when you dance it – I tell you!
“It’s really telluric and so strong, so emotional and also the fact that it happens on this earth with this physicality, it’s quite amazing because we’re all there and have this increasing energy – it’s just amazing!
“So, for me as a dancer I think it was the strongest. (…) There is a very specific choreography with a pattern (…) but there is something which is so naturally a match with the music, with this sort of ritualisation between those young men and women, there is something which is so obvious somehow, which just gets you, whether you’re out looking at it or dancing it.”
Now that the company is beginning to let go a little, Mercy is looking forward to ENB’s performance.
“I think it’s beautiful to have the possibility to see such good companies do Sacre [Rite] in their own way. It’s the same piece, but I think they have their own way to do it.”
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: The Future
And so we move on to the future of Tanztheater Wuppertal. For the past seven years it’s become a faithful repository of Pina Bausch’s body of work, touring almost incessantly in a continual ritual of remembrance.
Now, however, there are signs that the extended period of mourning is over and the company is about to enter an exciting new phase.
For one thing, a new Director from outside the company has been appointed: Adolphe Binder, formerly Artistic Director of Göteborg Ballet.
Eager young dancers are being phased in all the time.
And the company is about to take up residency in Wuppertal’s main theatre, the Schauspielhaus.
“It has been closed now for many years, and there was a big political conflict about this house, which is a beautiful house; [but] finally [the civic authorities] agreed to make this house an International Pina Bausch Dance Centre.
“So, of course, that will be a place for us, but also to invite eventually a company-in-residence or to have a creative process, with the [Pina Bausch] Foundation being involved.
“So, we needed a person who would be able to lead the company, but also to have an overview of where everything goes, and also to have enough knowledge and interest to invite new choreographers for the company.”
For Dominique Mercy, though, there is still the need if not “to perpetuate the soul of Pina Bausch” – he says with characteristic modesty he doesn’t want to sound pretentious! – at the very least “to keep her work alive.”
You sense Pina Bausch would approve.
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ENB’s Rite of Spring is at Sadler’s Wells 23rd March to 1st April.