The renowned German dancer, choreographer and dramatist Pina Bausch died last month. I write ‘and dramatist’ because to describe her work simply as dance would be to belittle it — in her tanztheater she portrayed the intensity of being a person in a unique and often shocking way.
Here’s a nice video tribute by Venezuelan marketing consultant Javier Miranda-Luque:
What…nice? That’s not what Pina Bausch was about.
The piece you saw there was not by Pina Bausch at all, and the music you heard was (fairly obviously) not the music for that dance.
That piece was choreographed by Ana Elena Brito, and you can see it again with its original music here: Illuminado
The music you heard was by Philip Glass, and you can see and hear him playing it here: Mad Rush
So the tribute you saw there was nothing more than confectionery with her photo on the front.
Something very dark
Pina Bausch is remembered for the way she could distill the pain and emotion of life into a savage concentrate, expressing qualities of relationships and feelings that all of us know and recognise from deep within us. Her work was often painful to watch (and to dance). Critics were split between those who wanted nice and those who allowed themselves to be drawn in.
You can sense something of it in the following clip from Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring“).
The original version of Sacre had been created by the Russian composer Stravinsky and choreographer Nijinsky, and was first performed in 1913 in Paris by the Ballets Russes. At the premiere, the discordant music and the savage primitive themes of the dance led to booing from the audience, then arguments and fights broke out in the theatre, disrupting the entire performance.
The story of Sacre had been developed in association with an archaeologist and scholar of ancient Russian tribes, who was an expert in pagan ritual. For the ballet, the storyline of a young girl who is chosen to sacrifice herself in a fertility rite by dancing herself to death is purely fanciful, but the intention was to create a deeply evocative theme that audiences would find resonant and shocking.
For Pina Bausch, this storyline and this music was an ideal platform for her intense choreography. Reading Pina Bausch’s own story, though, how she became anorexic (like so many dancers) in her early twenties, it’s easy to imagine that Sacre might have an element of autobiography in its portrayal of a girl finding herself ‘chosen’ and isolated, then driven by a force within herself, denying her own fertility while others around her discover theirs, and losing herself in frenzied self-destruction.
Visually, this is still quite nice, yet only if you don’t attend too closely — there is something very dark there too, and that something is the dark magic that Pina Bausch was able to capture and infuse into performance:
Something very human
While Le Sacre du Printemps was a set piece built around Stravinsky’s score and its fairytale storyline, Pina Bausch is best known for the works that she developed herself along with with her dancers. They frequently explore harsh themes of relationship and obsession, exposing difficult unspoken feelings we all have within us, if we can bear to watch.
Café Müller is deliberately autobiographical. Pina Bausch’s parents ran a café, and as a little girl she would have observed the customers’ lives played out there. In the set there are huge doors that perhaps suggest a child’s memory. She herself appears as a ghostly figure swept by invisible swirling currents of feeling, and around whom the other characters act out the dramas of their only partly-connected lives. It’s not clear whether she is haunting them, or they are haunting her.
The following clip combines excerpts from Café Müller with a fragment of an interview.
Something very real
The struggle between nice and real occupies psychotherapists and patients as well as choreographers and critics. There is another struggle — between fake CBT based on pat answers and real CBT based on relationship and understanding — that corresponds almost exactly to the controversy that Pina Bausch’s work caused.
Pina Bausch’s tanztheater takes dance to some of the inner places where psychotherapy also goes. She was an extraordinarily gifted interpreter of our inner lives, painting pictures in dance of things that cannot otherwise be described. Those who, like her, can bear to look find that in the darkness of what’s real there is humanity and redemption. Those who cannot look get confectionery.