Pina Bausch – Café Müller

I have loved Pina Bausch’s work since I first encountered it through the Wim Wenders documentary on her. In the 5 years since I first saw it, I’ve come back to this documentary whenever I’m feeling artistically uninspired, stagnant, or lost and its wordless beauty always reminds me how influential art can be. I’ve stayed up many a night watching it only to see the sun rise after and on one of those nights- I wrote this-

The fact that I wrote such a lengthy analytical breakdown of a scene that is less than 2 minutes doesn’t show how obsessive I can be as much as it shows how thoughtful and emotional every movement in Pina’s choreography is.

I never dreamed of seeing Pina’s company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in person and I can’t believe I happened to be in the same city and that I was able to get a ticket. I’m still partially in shock from tonight’s performances of Café Müller and The Rite of Spring and this is kind of a public journal entry about the most meaningful things (to me) that I observed, especially in Café Müller, and at the end of Rite.

What I love most about a lot of Pina’s choreography is that it is so tangibly emotional. Her choreography is some of the sickest, saddest, and beautifully expressive stuff I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible to see a stranger’s body move and to feel a strong response in your own- there is a directness of translation that accesses a more primitive communication between performer and audience- what they are feeling creates feeling in us. It’s also the closest I’ve seen to dance as social commentary. So many of her narratives seem to explore gender roles, power dynamics, societal structures and influences, and the destructiveness of patterns and habits, among other things. And I love her ability to use simpler ideas such as repetition to express our dependency on the habitual, the childish fear and desperation still in every adult which causes us to be easily manipulated and at the mercy of outside influences. A question I think of often when I watch her choreography is… what is habitual, what is learned, and what is fate? Tonight’s Café Müller in particular moved me to tears with its different portrayals of love. It starts in total silence and darkness. There are random chairs and tables all over the stage and as the first woman dancer starts moving, we hear her bump into a chair, making a horrible dragging sound on the floor. She has her eyes closed. For all the music I’ve heard in halls, one of the most effective at making me feel was tonight’s first chair-bump. Something about how unintentional and ugly it was tore a fabric of some kind in my consciousness, allowed me to feel fear at the randomness of the stage and the darkness. The lights gradually come on, and she is joined by another girl in white with closed eyes, but they are unaware of each other in their blindness. They slightly limp as they walk, bumping into walls occasionally with their arms outstretched. There is so much vulnerability in their exposed wrists. Their vulnerable wrists, the helplessness of their inability to see, and their slight limp all cohere into a commentary about how all humans are born. Maybe in this case “all the world is a stage” but one littered with the unknown, and in which we are vulnerable, helplessly blind and alone, and crippled- impaired by nature. Already I have such sympathy for the women onstage in their false predicament, and more importantly, sympathy for all of us offstage together in the world, in our real predicament.

One of the first men comes onstage with his eyes open. He watches one of the girls who’s eyes are closed and clears a path for her as she stumbles in all directions, noisily knocking chairs and tables out of her way. To me this is one of the most interesting representations of love I’ve ever seen. Someone who is almost as helpless, who, just by seeing, has more control, but someone who is so incredibly attentive and attuned to the loved one’s steps and is focused on creating a clear path for them. Because he doesn’t know where she will go, he still lacks control in a way, and for me this is a fascinating representation of fate and free will. In my interpretation of this man, I love to think of him as God. It’s beautiful for me to think, what if (the christian) God is not as powerful as we have always thought- what if he is only a little more sentient than we are, but loves us as much as it’s always been said? A human God. That’s what I would imagine this looks like.

All the while, the other woman in white is in the back, occasionally dancing upright, and other times laying very still. So still that you forget about her until she collapses to the ground… making you realize that what you thought was a stable structure could still erode, fall.

The woman in white who is dancing with God bumps into another man and they cling to each other. This is fascinating because they didn’t choose or seek each other, they just bump into each other. In this case, my question is, do soulmates exist? Were they meant to be and that is why they found each other in the dark, or is all love an accident? I love that this small thoughtful movement can be either of these opposing ideas, as well as so many others. Another man comes out (I call him the Enforcer) and he puts the couple through a series of stereotypical “love” actions…a kiss, a hug, and a carrying. But since it isn’t natural, the woman slips out of the man’s arms as the Enforcer is walking away, and the couple clings to each other again the way they first did when they found each other. The Enforcer once again puts them through the love actions. For me, the Enforcer could be a representation of the societal pressure for us to love a certain way, for us to follow some kind of rule book. This entire ordeal is repeated probably 7 or 8 times. The woman falls out of his arms everytime and they cling to each other with more and more desperation in their natural hug. Their return to the natural state of their love could also represent the ways we can’t give up love, even if it’s unhealthy for us. This whole bit is hard to watch for me, because even though the Enforcer is forcing them to do typical love things, it is tearing them apart from the movement that seems so natural for them and they start sighing in relief when they hug each other like that. (One thing I love about the Enforcer and the God types- you can’t really tell if they are on any side or have any ulterior motive or objective…for the couple or the woman, for themselves, or for someone else.) But the last time, the Enforcer walks away and they do the stereotypical love actions by themselves repeatedly, aggressively, fast. For me, their learned love is either the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen by virtue of the destruction of their natural state, or the most liberating thing in that it shows we can defeat our natures and love differently.

In another part, a man carries another man’s feet in his palms. When they disengage, the man who was carried immediately clings to the legs of the one who carried to him. Something about seeing grown men act so typically “childish” made me think of how childish we all are in our needs, in our dependence on others to carry us in some way. Another deceptively simple and devastating movement is when he stretched his arms upward to be carried or hugged. In the context of the narrative, it made us forcefully realize how alone and desperate we can all be at times.

The couple return to each other at different times throughout the piece. The second time, when they find each other again is such a beautiful moment. She has taken off her dress and sits naked at a table with her head down and back to us. This sign of failure or rest or resignation is disturbed when the man walks to her- this time on purpose! This time of his own free will! And waits for her to put on her dress, and smooth her hair and when she stands up, they do the typical love gestures, and she falls gently to the floor. It was so sad to see that their love was still not sustainable, but they find each other again after that and start doing these repetitive dance movements that are beautiful until they are against a wall. But it is habitual, so they keep doing these beautiful gestures, but they’re banging against the wall and it shows the violence that habits can have on ourselves and our relationships. The last time they find each other (and this for me, argues in favor of the existence of soulmates in this instance, or at least accidents that we can’t seem to quit) they fall to the ground together instead of just her. It is so beautiful to see that shared act.

The last thing that really struck me, was the end of the Rite of Spring. It was so incredible to see this live as well, after seeing so much of it onscreen. It is even more visceral, raw, and primitive as one would expect. There is a kind of ritualistic sexual power that is constantly in conversation onstage that is fascinating to observe. The solo choreography by the virgin at the end is incredible… the man is laying down and has his arms outstretched the entire time and she is dancing wildly. She is not only dancing out of control, but choreographed to seem like she is dancing in the control of someone else. Pina is exceptional at choreography which makes absence more presence- shows someone being influenced, manipulated by invisible forces- in this case, manipulated by desire, greed, the patriarchy, and betrayal, among others. The piece ends with the man closing his arms, and even though he is so far away, she collapses immediately, showing the control he had all the while, even though he seemed to be doing nothing.

Ok, really the last thing that struck me- (also the dirt stage for Rite of Spring deserves a mention, because it was a joy not only to see dancers dancing together so beautifully and in sync, but also to see the dirt dancing in response to their dancing- flying up in the same gestures or being left with the same patterns) the team bows at the end. Something seemed so emotionally exhausted, so shaken, maybe sad, maybe even ashamed. But it seemed like they were all very affected, or at least in character for the first couple of bows. It moves me to think of what kind of a journey this must be for them.

What is habitual, what is learned, and what is fate?
Ling Ling

#PinaBausch #TanztheaterWuppertal #WimWenders #dance #BrooklynAcademyofMusic #BAM 



I remember the day I returned your name to you, it flew from my mouth to yours and simultaneously, our bodies were thrown back in time, kisses that once flew from my mouth to yours compressing backwards, by the tens and hundreds. I fall through time, recoiling from the impact of my own love. Something in the fabric of the universe is torn and I see the denim couch unfraying, my hair redacting itself, an opposite erasure, coloring in the gray, regaining fullness.

There’s something about the way we say a name that belongs in part to us. Hundreds of others have the same name, but I mean you even when I’m talking to them, and even now, my voice still catches. There’s an intimacy, an implication in the tone of love, or blame, or some combination of both. Those two always seem to be in cahoots together, inseparable, unlike humans, so easily yoked or unstitched with a signature, a name. You shrugged out of our ill-fitting relationship, a marriage that shrunk or became bloated, too oversized. I’m not sure which. I’m too tired for this shit. It’s getting late in life, and I can’t keep recoiling from our impact, falling backwards. I sit on the frayed denim couch, redacting and editing our past, trying to allot blame without love. My life has bloated with nostalgia, shrunk to an aerial view of our relationship, and I’m still trying on a new old name, trying to figure out how to color in the gray, regain fullness.

social anxiety soup

I’m anticipating that, as new friends, we might go to movies and museums together, or just generally experience anything together, and I’m scared that I will feel pressure to be interesting and to have thoughts about things even though I know I will probably have thoughts since I’m a human but I’m already feeling this intense cranial pressure on the side of my eardrum and maybe I will have a nosebleed and my hearing is going in and out and I want to lay on the ground and just be still- I guess I’m just letting you know that I think I am a bland block of tofu in a soup of miso miasma and I am fine with it until someone else comes along and I feel like I should be a crunchy takoyaki ball full of flavor and texture and profound inner depth but I can only be a bland block of tofu, not even deep fried first for flavor, not even cooked or the extra firm kind, just raw crumbling pasty tofu the color of legs that haven’t seen the sun in 13 months dumped straight from the container left to flounder among the seaweed bits clinging to a scallion floatation device hoping no one will notice that I’ve had an accident and was born uninteresting. 

cliche love story

In some ways, I think I’m still recovering from all those years of walking into a classroom and seeing dozens of blue green eyes swivel towards me, their blonde hair flashing as they turned, a sudden movement dazing me in the doorway. Years of smellier and soggier food than the perfectly prepackaged Lunchables everyone else had. Speaking perfect English all day, I remember being shocked in the bathroom mirror by my own black hair, round yellow face, and small brown eyes. And eventually, one of you took me home and I thought after all these years, almost a decade, of forgetting, denying, and conditioning myself, I had made it, had finally become white or something close enough to it. You took me to your perfectly prepackaged split-level Lunchables home, with your perfect and accepting parents who wanted to take us all out to an authentic Chinese restaurant and we got to the restaurant and you all wanted me to order for you so I did, and then you had all these conditions. You wanted the dish I ordered, but with less oil, and no spice, and I thought, you are always going to do this, you are always going to want me on your terms, change me to your preference, diluting my culture, and myself, something I’ve done since I was old enough to see that I was other. Well, the sheen of your collective lustrous yellow hair has worn off, rubbed off in patches as on an elk’s antlers and I see that you’re just another white boy using me to make your life more interesting, to make you seem more interesting and I’m just another girl who gave up her power because she didn’t think she had any.

the kiln

Breaks my heart to see you again, to see you walking through that door, stooping a little to fit, hugging your shoulders in as you hunch inward and look for me. I’m already in the rounded corner booth, having gotten there extremely ahead of the agreed-upon time so that I can gather my composure, have enough time to seem completely at ease to see you when really I’m sticky all over with sweat, hair plastered to the side of my head, made even more sticky by my awareness that this isn’t at all how I wanted you to see me again and already I feel bloated from the sparkling water I ordered to pass the time. I wave you over and as you walk over, waves break over me- I’m drowning in a half-pipe of how you walk, how you look, how you look at me. You awkwardly inch in, doing the scoot slide scoot slide on these leather half shells. Does anyone have an easy time or look good getting into these kinds of seats? Last time we were here, we had a great time until we got into a heated political debate, one where you knew everything and were ruthlessly trying to educate me by going on a search and destroy of my ignorance. I was drunk, on wine and on you, just trying to hold on, desperately trying to please you, impress you, wishing my love (though a love that couldn’t quote Noam Chomsky, that didn’t know about foreign government or healthcare systems) could be enough for you. You left me there and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that not enough for someone. I finished my drink and in the next 4 years, I slowly became the girl you would have actually liked to have been at the bar with. Ain’t that life though, how it always goes. Today, I could have told you then, thereby saving us for now, that what is civilized is damaged. You broke me to make me and the process of your making and breaking made me perfect for you, but was too much for us, made any further relationship impossible, our relationship the kiln of our uncoupling.

ask jeeves

watching her text in the front seat with trembling arthritic hands like she’s trying to find where to thread the needle to another human connection,I’m struck with love pity and understanding,the phone and the internet all just a jumble,a scry and a screech trying to answer this question we all have which is when will I have this great love I felt I was made for