Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal
By Wy Dot Com
Every so often the tv comes up with something amazing. 1985 was it for me: a real coup: a full televised performance by Pina Baush’s company. I was so blown away, I can’t even remember the title of the piece.
It’s not dance, not theatre; how could you describe it? Try this: “…speech, song, circus tricks, gymnastics, brilliant visual images, and monumental sets.” Exuberance. Or would you prefer: “…the pornography of pain.”?
What could arouse such strong emotions?
Interesting, the first quote is from ‘the Sydney Morning Herald’ (2000), and the last from Stamford University, USA. Interesting also the Stamford’s last comments: “In the fifteen years since Bausch’s last appearance in Los Angeles, American dance has found its way into the territory of pain…”.
The territory of pain.
The tv performance, like most of Pina’s work was long, discursive, digressive, yes even uncomfortable at times. A bridging motif between pieces had the performers form into a long snaking line all enacting the same rigorous, obsessive body-manipulations as they wound around the audience. Wound and wound around, up to the edge of discomfort, until the novelty became an affront, then picking up on the audience mood the performers took it back up onto stage and used it for the tone of the following piece.
In some performances the performers chat to the audience, ask intimate questions: “Are you here on your own? Do you like me? Do you want come round the back?”
Challenge, confrontation, but also movements of great lyrical beauty, emotional intensity. Huge ensemble pieces (“You don’t work with Pina, you work for her. It can become a kind of cult.”) constructed from the performer’s own experiences:
Copy someone else’s tic
Do something you are ashamed of
Write your name with a movement
What would you do with a corpse?
Move your favourite body part
How do you behave when you have lost something?
Pina (Phillipine) Bausch was born in Solingen, Germany in 1940. At 14 she was already studying with Jooss, the German top choreographer. (“I loved to dance because I was scared to speak.”). She studied in America under such people as Jose Limon, Paul Taylor, Antony Tudor. In 1973 she was made director of Wuppertal Dance Theatre.
Why choose Wuppertal? An industrialized urban area in the Ruhr valley, it’s one characteristic a century-old overhead monorail system.
For its ordinariness.
She changed the Dance Theatre utterly. She loves forms, materials. Her sets can be breathtaking: a sea of flowers for ‘Nelken’, a stage of heaped leaves for ‘Bluebird’, a water-flooded stage for ‘Arien’.
She uses dress to send sexual messages to the audience; women can be vampy, or dressed in girly clothes, stilettos, or evening gowns.
She also loves romantic pop songs, the ritual of the cigarette, social dance. She may fool around with sex and sexual forms, but she always takes romantic love seriously.
In 1982’s ‘Nelken’ male performers in ill-fitting frocks frolicked in a sea of flowers whilst, separating them from the audience were guards with guard dogs. Real ones. The dogs were going frantic as the men fooled around; the guards struggling to hold them. The audience were scared, horrified. Then officials came onto the stage checking passports. Politics: gender politics, Cold War politics. But a performance for Pina Bausch is always many things: simple statements, positions, belief systems are starting points only: all is filtered through the personal lives of the performers; they all bring to the piece something of their personal lives. Such political statements may be a beginning but the piece soon moves away into the vastness of the human arena.
“In the work of Pina Bausch repetition often evokes an overwhelming image of pain and imprisonment.” We are presented with a take on our own lives: is this how we really seem? Do you recognise something of yourself there?
Is this the story of our time?
It may well be. Who was the psychologist said, the way the pessimist sees the world is probably nearest the truth?
Performance though, engagement, are their own rewards.
A love affair falls apart: it is not that pain, distress, collapse of the self, but the wonder that was there. Not the easy relapse, but the straining, striving for the topmost apple.
Pornography of pain? America now admits it has learned about pain.
Perhaps I do Pina Bausch a disservice: like all works of wonder the edge of threat is always present. But it is still a work of wonder.
A coup for tv. Yes, because Pina Bausch does not film her performances: there is nothing on record. But whispers reach me of the Goethe Institute libraries, of videos of performances, with discussion and commentary in German.
I do not have any German, but I would love a wee peek at some those.