By Jennifer Piejko
Pina is filmmaker Wim Wenders’s eulogy to German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch (1940-2009), and what will be for many a bittersweet introduction to her revolutionary work. Spending a lifetime interpreting and expanding the definitions of modern dance, her visionary incorporation of theater into her practice of German Expressionist dance left Wenders and her company mourning the loss of a playwright as well as a choreographer.
Her most famous works explore the failings of communication between genders, lovers, partners and caregivers. Many performers flirt with material risk, but Bausch’s performances take long leaps into precarious emotional territory as well. Watching a couple tango up and down stairs turns upsetting when, plunging as they ascend every step, one dancer stiffly falls toward the concrete, only to be saved by her partner at the last possible moment.
Perhaps Baush’s most famous work, Café Müller (1978), explores these frustrations most devastatingly. Based on the childhood memories of her parent’s restaurant and inn, Café Müller observes the discord and misunderstanding between the café’s guests, the performance a study in what is left unspoken between men and women. While also performed in Pedro Almodóvar’s film Talk to Her (2002), in Pina we watch Bausch and her dancers wander the empty café with eyes closed, stumbling into furniture, literally banging their heads on the wall in frustration. A couple embracing are constantly manipulated by a third man in a suit. As he tries to fuse and fix their poses they desperately try to cling to each other, only to fall apart over and over again. In the background, another dancer wades her way through the empty café, arms flailing, chairs flying, everything in her way. By the work’s end, the torture of all their failed self-expressions are just too much, and the dancers sit alienated, alone together. While sharing a seat at an intimate café table, they finally let go, sit back, and accept their chaotic truth of love as the ultimate test of endurance.
Bausch’s other works explore time - how love ages, how seasons change. Beginning with Rite of Spring (1975), brutal growth is conveyed by graceful dancers covered in soil. Bausch was unafraid of staging her work in unconventional settings, bringing just about anything on stage: the film has performances staged on a moving commuter train, smartly dressed passengers hardly looking up from their newspapers. Couples dance on the side of the road as waterfalls and fields of carnations surround the stage. These integrations disclose the ardor the choreographer saw in everyone, even if they existed in the banality of a newspaper-reading commute. She didn’t think it was so unusual to stage these dances; in fact, Bausch considered these details an expression of that which is silenced and restrained in train cars and travel everyday.
Rite of Spring (1975)
It would be too easy to categorize Bausch and her Tanztheater’s tense movements and disposition as a chapter of German Expressionist dance, like that of her peers Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss. Instead, when watching her performers dancing through the desert, the mountains, the fields, the trains and the sidewalks, it is the wildness of departure and loneliness that is Bausch’s true achievement and insight. Listening to the click of dancers’ heels long after they are out of sight, it becomes apparent that Bausch’s biggest concerns were not of how to capture life but how to release it. Bausch lets the dancer run away completely, perhaps so she might try and catch up with the choreographer’s own immense imagination.
Jennifer Piejko is the editor of Performa Magazine.