Vollmond by Pina Bausch
Before I saw my first Pina Bausch piece, I was convinced I’d hate it. At the time, I was heavily into cool, modernist contemporary dance, and I figured Bausch would be pretty much the opposite (I wasn’t wrong). Plus, the piece was three hours long, with no interval. And I had terrible flu. Still, it was billed as a must-see, so I hauled myself along thinking, “This had better be a big deal.”
It was a big deal. For three unbroken hours, I was fixed to my seat; the flu simply wilted through lack of attention. The piece was called Viktor. The stage was enclosed on three sides by a vast wall of earth; an enigmatic figure marked time through the entire piece by tipping one slow spadeful of soil after another on to the floor. Plenty happened on stage: Bausch dealt us different scenes – absurd, fascinating, comic, heartfelt, drab. And all the while, that unobtrusive tick-tock of falling soil made the stage feel like a grave being filled. I felt as if she was simultaneously pointing to the variety of life and showing its frame of death. The scale of that vision left me both devastated and elated.
Bausch could do that to you: take you to a higher place that you didn’t even know existed. Not all the time and not every time, but she could do it. How? One way was by demanding that her performers dig deep within their own memories and feelings; famously, Bausch said that she was not interested in how people move, but in what moves them.
Sparring with spectators … Nelken
Here, for example, is Dominique Mercy in Nelken. He’s doing ballet steps, but it’s a form of sparring with his spectators – even with the idea of spectacle itself.
Bausch would often use speech, song, clothing and props alongside movement – whatever she thought might convey her theme. Then, she would break out of conventional stage illusions: real dogs patrolled in Nelken, real tea was poured for the audience in 1980. Her sets were filled with leaves, flowers or water.
Sweat and bruises … The Rite of Spring
She was real with movement, too, making you notice the panting, the sweat, the bruises. Take the finale of her Rite of Spring (the only version I know in which the choreography actually matches the force of Stravinsky’s music). The stage is covered with peat, and the entire cast is smeared with soil and sweat. When the woman collapses at the end of her harrowing solo, you sense the exhaustion is real enough. Notice also the man lying behind her, his arms outstretched for the whole dance. He is still, but you feel the ache building in those arms.
Lost souls … Café Müller
Bausch loved choreographic repetition. Here is the famous “unrequited embrace” from Café Müller. Characteristically, she used a choreographic device to theatrical ends, in this case using a repeated phrase to reveal an internalised, dysfunctional cycle of behaviour. Many of her pieces featured a kind of absurdist chorus line, or a lineup of the entire cast repeating the same absurdist sequence of gestures.
Watch to the end of the Café Müller clip, and you’re left with a very Bauschian sense of people as lost souls, who haunt their own bodies. You’ll also see two stage outfits that Bausch uses over and over again: a shapeless shift dress with bare feet and loose hair (that’s Bausch herself in this clip); or high heels with prim dress and a chignon. Bausch’s men often wear suits, go bare-chested or simply wear women’s clothes. Whatever the costume, Bausch’s pieces nearly always circle the subject of gender.
Dreaming and drowning … Die Klage der Kaiserin
“Circling” is apt; she didn’t do linear. Her pieces were montages, free associations, scenes strung together in a kind of dream logic. This clip from Die Klage der Kaiserin reveals many ingredients: a repeated action, transvestism, a sense of drowning, a sense of dreaming – and, an inexplicable emotional punch.
Bausch’s influence and inspiration reached far beyond the usual borders of dance: she has fans and followers in theatre, in film, in visual arts. In the end, I can’t explain how she did what she did. All I know is that in her grand imaginings of desire, habit, instinct and power, we recognised something of ourselves – and we were both devastated and elated by what we saw.