The Pina Bausch blog - Part 2
Ricky Power Sayeed is watching every work in this summer's mammoth ten-show Pina Bausch season. That's 29 hours of radical German dance theatre over four weeks. Halfway through now, the quest continues…
June 22, Barbican
The audience at the Barbican is full of Pina Bausch fans who broke the bank last year and bought tickets for every show. But even after four performances, few will admit that they're flagging. John, a charity worker from London, is having none of it. 'Not at all exhausted,' he insists, 'I don't know how I'll feel in a few weeks, but right now each performance is like a good meal you look forward to. An oasis of calm.' John's been going to Bausch's shows since the early '90s, 'And I'm seeing these dancers, thinking “Oh, I remember when you were young, and you're still dancing beautifully.”'
It's the newer members of Tanztheater Wuppertal who get pride of place in 'Bamboo Blues', a cryptically happy piece inspired by Kolkata. The night belongs to Ruth Amarante, who delivers a series of intense set pieces. Early in the night, she flings herself and her flowing red dress around the stage, pulling at her arms as if she could strip off their flesh. Later, in one of those simple but striking moves so typical of Bausch, Amarante spirals about a chair before, in one move, jumping on and leaping off into the arms of another dancer. That theme of a moving circle comes around many times. That motif takes Pina's obsession with repetition and reworks it for India, a culture that's constantly changing but still returns to its traditions.
June 25, Sadler's Wells
'I'm expecting something a bit out there,' says Constanza, standing in the crowd outside Sadler's Wells to see her first ever Pina Bausch show, 'but I don't know much about it. Will there be music?' Her partner Mary is better prepared. 'I saw the Wim Wenders film and I fell in love. But I guess this will be a lot more emotionally involving. It's the real thing.' That was certainly the case for me. The funny bits in 'Nefés', Bausch's 2003 piece inspired by Istanbul, actually made me laugh, while its moments of striking misogyny produced shocked silence.
Afterwards, however, feelings were mixed. For Constanza, 'It's all a blur - in a good way - but I'm not sure I'd go to one of these again.' Mary felt differently. 'I loved the group bits, but when it was just that dancer singing and rehearsing those steps, he wasn't singing well, and still it was so moving.' Fernando Suels Mendoza practices a crouching but balletic routine, humming a ditty to himself. Then that song's blaring out of the speakers and he's dancing to it properly. Suddenly it's entertaining, but the sweet melancholy's disappeared. It's a stand-out Bausch moment, reminding us that art is all about our personal reactions.
June 29, Barbican
If they're making a film about you going to the Pina Bausch season, you're probably a serious fan. So when I see a woman being filmed buying costly merchandise, I guess I've found a like-minded soul. Somehow, I find myself interviewing her on camera. 'Pina Bausch is the main thing in my life,' Dorit tells me with total sincerity. I believe her: she's come all the way from Israel. A choreographer herself (she makes performances with 'fat women'), Pina's productions have inspired her own work for 40 years. Just before she dashes for her front-row seat, I ask her which show she loves the most. Her eyes bulge and she raises her hands in the air like she's going to announce a sacred truth: 'All of them.'
Bausch knew her audiences loved her, but that didn't stop her from investigating the weird dynamics between spectators and performers, as well as those between men and women. One striking episode in 'Agua', her 2001 production inspired by Brazil, wittily brings these all-important themes to life. The cast pose with soft-porn beach towels on their bodies, so that the breasts and bikinis printed on the textiles look like their own. In this one joke you've got the horrible ways that women's bodies are controlled, the bizarre demands performance makes on everyone, and how uncomfortably fun all this can be.
July 1, Sadler's Wells
It was 'Palermo Palermo' that introduced me to Tanztheater Wuppertal. Seven years later, our admittedly rather one-sided affair is still going strong, despite the exhausting past month of performances. But I was wary about returning to this particular production. Your first time's always the best, isn't it?
Well, no. When you're more experienced, Pina Bausch's work is certainly less surprising, but you notice things you didn't have the time to sense before, when everything was a whirlwind of novelty. If you know that the show will begin with the high, dimly-lit wall at the front of the stage collapsing in a cloud of dust, there's actually something to anticipate. And it's not just us amateurs who get excited by this incredibly blunt destruction of 'the fourth wall'. When I ask Icaro Alba, the production's dramaturg, which is his favourite moment in the show, he simply holds up his hands like a mime, slowly bending the wrists, sending the imaginary masonry crashing down.
This legendary 1989 work lacks the rest of the season's voluptuous choreography, swapping it for something bleaker. Dancer Julie Shanahan screams for men to hold her, to stop doing so, to throw tomatoes at her face and to squeeze her tight. It's so painful that the whole audience is gasping with horror and delight. No one can do this like Pina Bausch.
July 8, Sadler's Wells
After 29 hours of deconstructed dance theatre, I'm left wondering: What's the moral of this story? Pina Bausch would have laughed if you asked her to reveal what any of her shows is supposed to teach, but this is my last post, and I want to work out what I've learned over the last four weeks. So here goes. (Forgive me, Pina!)
Lesson One: I feel like I know these people
Go ahead, laugh: somebody's got to remind me that I haven't actually been privy to the deepest secrets of Tanztheater Wuppertal's performers. Perhaps dancer Julie Shanahan really is a passive aggressive bombshell with a dry sense of humour - she strides and slinks around most of the shows, screaming at people for doing things she's demanded they do - but she could just be a great actress. That reminds me, Bausch wanted us to see her performers act out a version of their selves, but new dancers are now playing parts devised by people now retired from the company. Isn't someone pretending to be someone else exactly the kind of performance Pina was against?
Lesson Two: There's a fair bit of filler
I've been keeping quiet about it, but the truth is that I've occasionally been bored. When, during the slow start of 'Wiesenland', I saw several dancers puff cigarette smoke through water poured from buckets, I didn't think 'What a great image!', I thought 'Didn't I see this last week?' and 'I am not getting a thing from this.' It's the one weakness in Pina's method: performances that avoid overt meanings will, occasionally, seem meaningless.
Lesson Three: But when it's good, it's very good
A man builds an insanely precarious tower of chairs, through which another man and a woman crawl. It doesn't sound so great, but there's a strange alchemy to skits like that. The careful arrangement of objects and people produces incredible effects, and everyone I spoke to after 'Wiesenland' had fallen in love with that moment.
Lesson Four: It's never really the end - until it is
During 'Palermo Palermo', stagehands begin arranging cherry blossom branches, but before they can finish whatever they're up to, the house lights are raised and the show's over. Suddenly the division between dance and reality is confused. When, exactly, did the performance finish? 'Wiesenland', by contrast, has the sense of an ending. It concludes with a Hungarian folk song that insists we should dance, no matter what. Upstage, a man builds a boat; an escape route to new realities. Pina Bausch didn't approve of stories with morals, but she was a master at making them anyway.
Wiesenland rating: 3/5
World Cities 2012 rating: 4/5