Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal

Posted: September 26, 2011 in Parameters
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Every so often English tv comes up with something amazing. 1985 was a real coup: a full televised performance by the Pina Bausch company.
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 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.
She died in 2009.

Why choose Wuppertal? An industrialized urban area in the Ruhr valley, its one characteristic a century-old overhead monorail system.
For its ordinariness.

She changed the Dance Theatre utterly.
She loved forms, materials. Her sets could be breathtaking: a sea of flowers for Nelken, a stage of heaped leaves for Bluebird, a water-flooded stage for Arien.

She used dress to send sexual messages to the audience; women can be vampy, or dressed in girly clothes, stilettos, or evening gowns.
She also loved romantic pop songs, the ritual of the cigarette, social dance. She may fool around with sex and sexual forms, but she always took 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 knows it has relearned 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.

  1. juh says:

    Territory of pain – interesting term. This is much the same what I felt in the eighties when I had the permission to be with the company for some weeks. The actors on stage do not pretend, the don’t play a role, they don’t act. They “do” things.

    They don’t play exhaustion for eg. in “Arien”, when they run from the back of the stage to the foreground till they collapse. They “are” exhausted. In “Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört” there is a scene where the ensemble catches two dancers and force them to kiss each other. They don’t want to be catched and don’t want to kss each other, but the others are stronger. I heard from them that they get hurt often in this scene. They do things, they don’t act.

    I’ve wrote articles about the 3D-film “PINA” and the latest piece in my blog. Perhaps you are interested. It is in German though:

  2. Yes, it is very strange that quote, ‘territory of pain’; and it must be remembered that this is a newspaper article from, I’m pretty sure, Before 9/11!

    I was intrigued, when I wrote this (initially about four years ago) what strong and extreme reactions Pina’s work invites. From what i have seen her performances are overwhelming, in settings, and intensity and duration of performance.

    I was also intrigued that we felt a need to explore such a territory. This is because i think at the back of my mind was the matter of people thinking we have had it easy here in the West. That there has evolved a kind of metanarrative that Western countires, States, have never known hardship or struggle or the hunger of a social system that does not recognise their existence. We have known all these, still do, and it is only until recently, we are actually talking decades, that a portion of us have been able to get away from that hand-to-mouth existence.

    This legacy is maybe what determines our psyche, and I think what Pina acknowledges in her work: that our main certainties are only temporary.

    I have been watching the new dvd ‘Dancing Dreams’, about working with teenagers to produce a performance. One of the tutors says to a performer, something along the lines of ‘when I did this particular piece (a rather sultry movement) I had goosebumps.’ It is like you say: the performances are done for real. It is a very inspiring, life-affirming, dvd.

    I now have the Wim Wenders dvd, ‘Pina’. I am saving it for that extra special occasion.

    Your comments are invaluable. I heartily thank you.

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