Child's play

Fearless and charming, Dominique Mercy sheds some light on the mysterious Pina Bausch.

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The elusive choreographer Pina Bausch, who rarely talks to the press, is one of the dance world's biggest mysteries. While her visually arresting spectacles—wherein dance, theater and music combine in a mosaic of poignant vignettes—stand on their own, it also helps to be guided by an insider. At the center of much of her work is the riveting French dancer Dominique Mercy, who, at 23, joined Bausch's Wuppertal Tanztheater in 1973; in the company's latest spectacle, Fr die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen ("For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow"), Mercy helps to forge the emotional core of the piece, which has been described as an homage to dancers at every stage of their career. Inspired partly by an American Indian story, "How the Bat Came to Be," in which a squirrel risks his life to save the sun from a tangle of tree branches, the piece is also about unearthing innocence in complicated times. The bewitching Mercy, a 2002 Bessie recipient who can switch from elegant to bizarre in an instant, spoke from Italy, where he was performing a duet with choreographer Joseph Nadj, about the latest Bauschian epic.

Time Out New York: Could you describe the working process behind For the Children?

Dominique Mercy: The process is quite similar for every piece, unless we have a coproduction with a town or country. For this, we had no script or theme—we started from nowhere. Pina begins with questions, and slowly we start finding our way; eventually, something crystallizes, but that happens quite late. For a long time, a piece can go anywhere because Pina wants to leave the content open.

TONY: Is that frustrating?

DM: It's very exciting on one level because you can do anything you want, even though you don't, unfortunately. [Laughs] You always have shyness or think, Well, that's stupid, I'd better not try it; but at the same time, everything is permitted. When she starts to be more definite and to construct the piece, she keeps just a few things. We try to play with them to find out how they can sit together: What could this bring if I put it there? How does this react if I turn it around? At this point, you can feel helpless. In the end, she's the only one who realizes that she's found what she's looking for. Or you get used to what she's keeping and, suddenly, she takes it apart again, and you say, "Oh, shit." It can take a while to realize that the new choice is better, but what counts is what's good for the piece. Of course, it's not easy. [Laughs]

TONY: What is an example of a question she asked in the working period?

DM: Oh! I don't remember anything specific—she related a lot of it to Native American Indian legends. We had a few questions re-lated to this particular way of thinking. Some people have written about how For the Children refers to childlike behavior, but that is not true. We didn't work from a theme of children—it just happened that at the end of the piece, she found this title.

TONY: Would you tell me about your part?

DM: There are scenes that are important, but I never like to point them out so much that people look at them in a certain way. It has to do with struggle and memory and life—and when you say life you say also death.

TONY: When you're making a new piece, does Bausch encourage you to prepare anything outside of the studio?

DM: She is always afraid to guide people too much in one direction. [Laughs] She sometimes leaves a book on a table and it's up to whoever is interested to pick it up. But everybody is able and free to scratch in whatever direction he wants. What's always very important for Pina is that your part has to have something to do with your own self. One way or another, you're involved.

TONY: What is Bausch like in studio?

DM: It always depends on the stage of the process. The closer you get to the premiere, the more difficult it gets; she is very insecure and nervous, and everything is terrible and she's not able to do it! But at the beginning, it's very calm. We laugh a lot. She is, most of the time, very quiet and open.

TONY: How did you meet Bausch?

DM: It was through Manuel Alum, an American choreographer and dancer with whom I took my first modern-dance class in France. I was in Saratoga one summer, and he was there with a member of the company that I worked with in Bordeaux. When I arrived in Saratoga, there was Manuel and another young woman—it was Pina. She told me that there was eventually going to be a project in Germany: Would I like to work with her? I said, "Sure." I knew I wanted to change. I needed to quit the company I was with, and I needed to change my approach. I knew I was missing something in France.

TONY: How did you know Pina was the answer?

DM: She represented something both completely new for me and something that I recognized. I felt very near to her quality of movement. It was new, but I could fit into it. I don't know how to explain it, but there was something very organic about it. She was working with me, but not Dominique Mercy, the dancer—she found something beneath, which maybe I didn't show before. That was so exciting.

TONY: Why have you continued on for so many years?

DM: It's obviously the place I have to be. You know when you fit somewhere? It's not necessarily a comfort, but you know it's the right place. There is also something that happens when you work so long with a person—a reciprocal sense of responsibility. When I look around, I see there are many wonderful performers, but sometimes people get lost; they try too many things in terms of making something new, and at the end, the opposite happens. You sort of lose yourself.

TONY: As someone who's been an active member of the dance scene since the '60s, is there anything about it that you dislike?

DM: When it is superficial. That's what disturbs me the most. Dance has to be used in the most honest way. For me, the connection is very important—or, as Pina would say, "the stomach." When she makes decisions, she has to feel sure in her stomach. I think it's a combination—of body, soul, head and stomach. This all has to be there, otherwise there is no need.

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