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