Waves Coming to Shore
Pina Bausch and the Ineffable Beauty of Dance/Theatre
There dance stood in the mid-1970s, stripped to the bone, only the essential elements of time, space, and motion remained as definitive identifying components. All other trappings -- costumes, lighting, music, even codified technique -- were deemed unnecessary. Choreographers and dancers challenged every rule imposed by their predecessors, every assumption, conscious or unconscious, about what constituted dance. And just like Inanna descending into the underworld, at every portal another mantle of artifice fell away. Many artists believed that only by paring the art form to its essentials could it be expressed in its true form without reliance upon other art forms and production values. It was in this rarified atmosphere that the pendulum began to swing from a non-expressive, almost clinical execution of movement to a more traditional and entertainment-based form that remembered the lessons of the past and carefully chose elements from a greatly enlarged palette. Costumes came creeping back, sets appeared, and dancers spoke and performed everyday movement as well as technical feats. Although many choreographers began infusing their work with expressive movement and theatrical accoutrements -- Bill T. Jones explored the use of text and non-traditional partnering, and prominently displayed the delightfully unaffected artwork of Keith Haring -- no artist matched the revolutionary integration of dance, theatre, music, scenery, and costume into large-scale spectacles like visionary Pina Bausch.
Bausch used every element available to the choreographer and theatre artist to create dances -- or works of dance/theatre -- that were epic in every sense of the word. Her works are evening-long (three hours with no intermission is not unusual) collages of nonlinear narrative vignettes set in unusual stage environments of extravagant size and texture: tons of dead leaves in Bluebeard (1977), ankle-deep water in Arien (1979), replicas of California redwoods in Nur Du (1996), a piece based on Bausch's impressions of the American Southwest that was commissioned by four U.S. universities including the University of Texas and performed in Austin three years ago, and thousands of carnations in the piece of the same name, Nelken (1982), which Bausch will present when her company returns to Austin this week.
Bausch's pieces are multi-layered and studded with curious props, ironic twists, and self-revelatory text, much of which is drawn from the personal life experiences of the performers in her company and their responses to the probing questions Bausch poses during the lengthy rehearsal process. Her large and diverse group of performers -- usually 20-plus per show from several different countries -- is costumed in formal evening wear and often addresses the public directly while engaging in repetitive task-oriented movement. This repetition of simple movements or phrases, which has become a hallmark of Bausch's work, serves to intensify the physical and/or emotional brutality or tenderness inherent within the choreography. Common themes include exploring the dichotomies inherent in relationships between men and women and the individual and the group -- the sinister versus the benign, the comedic versus the tragic, perhaps juxtaposed or layered Fellini-style with seemingly random imagery.
There can be no tepid response to Pina Bausch's work -- it is gritty, real, messy, and disquieting, much like life. Bausch's work holds up a mirror to us in the audience, showing us our most desperate fears, longings, and triumphs by tapping into both our fascination with painful issues. We are invited to experience vicariously a nasty scene during which we feel uncomfortable rubbernecking but are compelled to watch anyway. During Bausch's concerts, the audience is as nakedly vulnerable as the dancers, yet there is a measure of safety because the work contains no judgments and no moral platitudes. It is the embodiment of honesty.
It was this remarkable quality to her work that led to Bausch being offered the directorship of a lifetime. Imagine having the funds and the support to build a company from scratch, in any way you envision. Artistic directors, I can see your eyes wandering, dreaming, realizing, and then sighing heavily. This is what was offered to the 33-year-old wunderkind when she was asked to head the Wuppertal Theatre in Germany in 1973. From there, Bausch revitalized the dance landscape and redefined the art form in order to explore her own expressionist vision.
More than any other choreographer of the latter half of this century, Bausch has had the power to simultaneously mesmerize and repel audiences throughout the world, crossing barriers of language and culture with work grandiose and controversial that probes the dark and eccentric recesses of the mind. During the past 25 years, she has influenced subsequent generations of dancers, choreographers, and thespians throughout the world, including Martha Clarke, William Forsyth, and Robert Wilson. In Austin, she has influenced not only this dancer-writer, but companies such as Kinesis Dance Theatre Project and Johnson/Long Dance Company.
Johnson/Long, whose large-scale, multi-layered compositions of technical dancing, imagery, spoken word, and rich musical textures are often described as cinematic dance/theatre, was already established and performing regularly when Pina Bausch first visited Austin in 1996 with Nur Du. Founders Darla Johnson and Andrew Long drew both inspiration and artistic validation from Bausch and felt honored to meet a master of the art of dance/theatre. The two companies spent an afternoon together during which Long discovered that Bausch's performers kept journals detailing their roles and was duly impressed by the long-term dedication of the company to the work. Upon seeing Nur Du, Long was particularly struck by Bausch's use of multiple images, quick scenes, and seamless transitions, which reminded him of "waves coming to shore," with the action "continuously gathering upstage and dispersing downstage, much like a lengthy dissolve in film editing.
"She creates a problem and solves it simply," Long says. "For example, she had a dancer undress and shower on stage. To make this happen quickly and not get water on the stage floor, performers held up a gigantic sheet of clear plastic to create an impromptu shower which caught the water and was easily removed." For Long, Bausch's elegant solutions inspired him to seek out graceful answers within his own work.
The co-directors admire Bausch's steadfast refusal to present only full-length works and not excerpts. Johnson maintains that the dance/theatre form is not made to be cut up into pieces. Both agree that a portion of the work cannot express the entirety of the piece, it would be like "cutting out a section of a painting and presenting it to the audience as representative of the whole." Still, the lengthy format remains difficult for American audiences raised on sound bites and quick-cut images to appreciate. In addition, the scope and depth of the artistic work may be limited by restrictive funding specifications, seriously undermining the artist's intent. Where Bausch is given adequate resources to explore her vision, American artists struggle for funding and theatre space, a particularly thorny issue in Austin. Because Johnson/Long's work incorporates complex production values, it can be produced in only three theatres locally, and those are all tightly booked, resulting in the company presenting more performances on tour than in its hometown. As they wrestle with difficult issues affecting the survival of modern dance companies, the company's founders continue to pursue aesthetic issues such as refining their own definition of dance/theatre.
For Johnson and Long, light is an integral part of the choreography, and production elements are used to elevate the work rather than as "an overlay or a surface theatricality that is pasted on later." Their focus is on the integration of forms, and Johnson admits that sometimes the choreography is the primary focus and sometimes the message is expressed by building the piece around a production element instead. Borrowing freely from theatrical elements, Johnson and Long employ devices such as subtext, characterization, and intent, and use techniques influenced by photography and film mediums. Unlike Bausch's abstract vignettes that grip audiences on an internal, subconscious level, their work contains a narrative thread, a conceptual throughline which involves both conscious and subconscious processes in order to connect with people in an entertaining and unique manner. They ask simply that the audience experience the work fully with all of the senses rather than just passively watch the action on stage. The keyword is response.
Three years ago, whenPina Bausch and her company performed in Austin for the first time, I had just returned from graduate school in Colorado and was thrilled to find that Austin was able to attract more cutting-edge choreographers from different parts of the globe. But because so few people are familiar with dance -- past or present -- I often find myself unable to express to many people the magnitude of an exceptional dance event like a Pina Bausch performance when one occurs in Austin. Many times I feel like I have access to a magical world that only those people working in the dance field can see. I want to share this world with the uninitiated and find myself valiantly trying to bridge the gap where there is no common point of reference. A recent conversation with a friend went something like this:
Dawn: Pina Bausch is coming back!!
Dawn: A choreographer from Germany. She revolutionized the field of dance/theatre ... (I give him the whole list of catchy phrases and begin to sound like a bad press release, so I stop). This is a really big deal.
Friend: How big?
Dawn: (Wracking my mind to find a suitable comparison. He likes boxing, so I'll try that.) It's like the... Okay, remember the recent De La Hoya fight. This is as big of a deal as that. Perhaps bigger! (As he stares incredulously, trying to figure out the comparison, I give up trying to explain. I am satisfied that I have given him an idea of the magnitude of this event, but I'm dissatisfied that, like too many people, he has no point of reference whatsoever to dance theatre.)
This conversation led me to imagine a way in which we could communicate imagistically, so I would be able to transfer/download/choose-your-own-jargon what I am seeing in my brain -- the experience, the emotion, the colors and shapes -- into the other person's brain. Then we would be able have a discussion on equal footing rather than having to compare apples to elephants. I realized that sometimes words just don't work effectively for dance. I am not trying to use that old condescending cop-out, "the work speaks for itself, so I shouldn't have to explain it to you" as a dodge. Our society values verbal skills and that is how we communicate. As a dancer and a writer, I constantly struggle with words, trying to make them bend and stretch around a concept or description that will help me to convey a non-verbal concept with woefully inadequate scribbles that usually allow the images to slip through the spaces between the letters. It is much like songs or poetry that lose their essence and impact with translation. Unlike words, images can convey an idea in a moment, without lengthy explanation or discourse. But how do you describe an image fully?
Perhaps I have stumbled upon the reason why Bausch refuses to explain her work except in the most vague terms. Words can be misconstrued. They are concrete entities which measure and label. Images are elusive, transparent, and ephemeral. They can shift and create deeply layered levels of meaning. Words, however, are limited to a finite number of meanings. Until we are able to achieve imagistic communication in the perfect world that I dream of, dance, the art form requiring the simultaneous connection of mind, body, and spirit, can fill the void between emotion and expression where words often falter. Meanwhile, as choreographers continue to create work that defies description, writers will keep struggling to overcome the language barrier between the verbal and the non-verbal. And dance, which has survived the removal of all supporting elements, has, according to Bausch, emerged screaming with joy from a bed of silk carnations.
Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal presents Nelken (Carnations) on Wed, Oct 27, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall. Prior to the performance at 7pm, UT Department of Theatre and Dance Associate Professor Ann Daly will give a lecture titled "Pina Bausch: Feminist, Nihilist, Romantic?" on the Bass Concert Hall Mezzanine.
Johnson/Long Dance Company will perform The Trajectory of American Frontiers, a new piece commissioned by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, with the symphony Fri & Sat, Nov 5 & 6, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall. The work, which features music by resident composer Darden Smith, is called "an epic symphony in three movements that explores the time period between the Old West and the next millennium."