A Stage for Social Ego to Battle Anguished Id
July 2, 2009 § Leave a comment
Because dance does not use words, and much of its spell lies in aspects of contrast, rhythm and coordination, it is only occasionally taken seriously as drama. With the greatest choreographers of recent decades, it has been, and yet even Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham — to name but three — have not won the acceptance as theater artists that they deserve. As dramatists, they at least equal the playwrights who have been their contemporaries. But this is still too seldom said.
The productions of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, however, always and immediately made a striking impact as theater, and the audiences they attracted included many who were by no means dance specialists. Choreography as a term does not suffice to define her work, which frequently used the spoken word and relied on elaborate scenic effects. Anyone who saw her pieces will recall how the women of her “Rite of Spring” covered themselves in earth; how in “1980” the stage was a lawn; how “Carnations” (“Nelken”) began as a field of, yes, carnations (gradually trampled as the work proceeded); and how “Palermo Palermo” began with the coup de théâtre of a tall wall, across the stage, toppling forward and falling apart.
Even if you objected to much of Ms. Bausch’s work — I did — it was a shock to hear of her death on Tuesday at 68. To recollect those and other images is to remember the strange courage of her vision. Who else put such worlds onstage? How much of her choreography, if any, can survive her? Plenty of it has been filmed. (Parts of “Café Müller” and “Masurca Fogo” looked very appealing in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 movie “Hable con Ella.”) But mainly, as they say, you had to be there. A wall falling over on film is one thing. But when a wall falls over onto the stage not far from you, the impact is of another order.
What is scarcely diminished by Ms. Bausch’s death is the art of dance. There were good dance moments in her work, but they were usually of secondary interest and choreographically of no lasting import. Her big-scale dance episodes were mainly wild and vehement forms of not quite coherent expressionism. The women’s anger and suffering in “Rite of Spring” and “Iphigénie en Tauride” were both memorable and vague. The pieces’ lack of dance precision was part of their point, as was the way they seemed to flaunt a kind of unfocused and unrigorous intensity that in almost any academic-dance classroom would be considered bad style.
But there were several kinds of dance in Ms. Bausch’s theater pieces. Several of her epics included arch little routines (sometimes with the cast coming into the auditorium, and usually performed with women wearing red lipstick) involving a small social-dance-like step pattern, smart upper-body gestures and — here the Bausch style was always at its most precise — sophisticated facial expressions. The dichotomy between this social ego and the incoherent flailings of the anguished id was central to much of her work.
Another strange component of Ms. Bausch’s dance style was bad ballet. The way her performers would make a point of forcing themselves to do adagios, turns and jumps — drawing to your attention all the muscular, stylistic and technical imperfections that obviously flawed the dancers as ballet technicians — was part of the extraordinary masochism she often placed onstage.
Masochism was a recurrent feature in Bausch theater: you would see not only dancers tormenting another dancer (holding cigarette lighters to the soles of feet, for example, or pelting a face with tomatoes) but also the degree to which the victim was complicit in his or (usually) her suffering. Unusual among non-ballet artists of recent decades, there was little or no gender neutrality in her work: the differences between men and women were central and a subject for drama.
No single label will do. Ms. Bausch was not just a green artist protesting the desecration of the environment (though that was a powerful element in her works) or a feminist depicting the opposition between women’s pain and their social conformism (though that was evident) or an expressionist emitting rage at aspects of the socio-political status quo (though the intensity of that feeling was unmistakable). In some of her pieces she seemed to be celebrating the charm of the world, not just mourning its erosion. And she was often funny.
Her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, must be remembered for its many extraordinary performers, who would open themselves up onstage to the audience in startling ways: with alarming directness, wicked slyness, exaggerated elegance and manic fervor. “You know them better than you know your best friends,” one critic remarked in the 1980s.
She was a theater poet. Whether the images added up to successful poetry became part of the debate. I have used the word incoherent about her: it applied most obviously to the structure of most of her works. Yet that incoherence wasn’t quite a flaw. To me, most of her pieces expressed the inner landscape of the depressed mind, here obsessed and there rambling, often compelling. But she was at pains to elude definition.
In thinking of the Bausch works that might have been, you imagine aspects of beauty, humor, big-scale visual imagination, as well as darkness, sarcasm and intensity. And the simplest way to feel her loss is to reflect that now there will be no more Bausch pieces for us to argue about. The scene is smaller without her.
Pina Bausch rehearsing “Café Müller” in 1995. Her pieces combined dance, spoken word and scenic effects.
Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images