Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost! (Pina Bausch, 1940-2009)

by | 4 May 2011

A still from Ataxia, choreographed by Wayne McGregor

The release of Wim Wender’s film Pina presents us with an occasion to consider what dance, as an art form and practice, can offer us by way of imagining new ways of being in the world. Unlike other art forms, such as literature or painting, dance as a medium through which to think about ways of being that challenge representational, narrational, and other (sovereign) modes of thought about life remains somewhat under-examined.

The film, a stunning tribute to the German expressionist choreographer Pina Bausch, conveys the pathos and sensibility of Bausch’s choreography through a range of inventive techniques. The 3D technology, usually the preserve of horror or adventure films, aids in mitigating the flatness that might otherwise be inevitable in the depiction of dance on film. The film intersperses archival footage, dance performed for the film, and interviews with dancers of the Tanztheatre Wuppertal, of which Bausch was Director for 36 years.

The love for Pina Bausch that those who worked with her expressed is best encapsulated by one of the dancer’s commentary on Pina. Unlike the others, who offer some sort of personal reflection on how she inspired and taught them, and what she was like as a person, choreographer, friend, and artist, this particular dancer simply pleads with Pina to visit her in her dreams. She looks straight into the camera, and speaking directly to Pina, tells her quietly but assuredly that she has been waiting for her to appear in her dreams and that she knows that Pina has already made a nightly visitation to another. As anyone who has mourned someone they truly loved knows only too well, there is simply no equivalent to dreaming a person who has died. It always feels like a gift; an ephemeral happening beyond your control which leaves an impression that stays with you long after you wake up.

This vignette conveys the sense of being moved by something that lies both inside and outside of oneself, and the desire for that sensation. Much like how we might think about relationality. Pina Bausch’s choreography boldly addresses the internal struggles of the individual; relations between two, which are often marked by violence, fear, and power; and relations between two, but where a third is very much present. This third figure is always in human form, if not appearing as an extension of the subject’s interiority or even psyche; there is no space here for representations of fate, or the divine, or the transcendent. This is an immanent relationality that is inescapable. Does this seem banal? When we are surrounded by the egoistic subject who imagines himself to be atomistic “in the heaven of his fancy,” who only too often fails to understand how he, whether he likes it or not, is utterly dependent on those (including non-human life) around him for survival, the relationality that sits at the core of much contemporary dance choreography, including Bausch’s, is profoundly moving. In these scenes, relationality is simply not a choice.

Inter-relationality is not only fraught with power struggles, violence, and passion, but also, by fear. Many of the dancers who were interviewed relayed things that Pina had told them in order to inspire their dance to reach new expressive heights. The themes of confronting fear, letting go of fear, and living fearlessly emerge in these words of advice, as well as the choreography itself. In the piece The Rites of Spring, a primitivistic battle between women and men culminates in the self-sacrifice of one woman to a man in order to override the greater collective fear of an absolute: the death of the species. Unusually, this piece is less abstract than others, attaching fear to an animality that is palpable, an animality that remains at the core of humanity. Fear, much like its ascription to the uncivilised, colonized, beastly creatures of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, founds an apparently irrational obeisance to the Law, which in The Rites of Spring, is an eternal Law of the reproduction of the species, or life (and thus, not so irrational afterall). The fear ascribed to these base animalistic drives are of course, housed most strongly in the human figure. Terror, as Mr. Prendrick tells us, is a disease that virulently affects the human being. If Pina’s choreography is at times melancholic, it is in part because of the relentless struggle against fear that makes an appearance at different moments. Many similarities with Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondsman resound here: the bondsman preserves his biological life out of the fear of death, but eventually throws off his chains of submission to the lord by, in the words of Judith Butler, “evincing a consciousness he or she is not supposed to have had, and so showing the lord that he has become Other to himself” (Butler, Undoing Gender, p.250). At one moment necessary for survival, the fear of death ultimately dissipates in the movement towards living life fully, something that the lord was never capable of doing. It is by scandalising the lord with a consciousness he is not supposed to have had that the bondsman sets the basis for a life in common with others.

The agony of repetitive failure that has a distinctly psychoanalytic dimension, in pieces such as Café Müller, also illuminate conditions of our being that are all too familiar. In this piece, a couple keeps failing (and literally, falling), having been set up by the ubiquitous third figure to do so. Long after the third has left the scene, the law fully internalised, they continue to repeat the failure, faster and faster, until finally, exhausted, they stop, momentarily locked in an embrace. She backs away. The scene changes. Here, love stands in for life, and the viewer is moved by the physical repetition that exhausts the couple until it can do nothing else but change itself.

Bausch’s meditations on sense and sensation are framed by set designs that are often surreal in their banality; and this is wonderfully conveyed in the film as the dancers occupy a range of spaces from public swimming pool decks to clifftops to roadsides to subway platforms as they dance in remembrance of Pina. This is not about bringing dance into a ‘public’ sphere, or about shocking our visual senses by juxtaposing art with the everyday, but rather, the dance itself is embedded into the everyday because it is an expression of the most everyday of experiences. The sense and sensations that are buried by the quotidien demands of work-travel-leisure are unmasked by the dancers. It is an intervention of a lively sort.

The actual physicality of Bausch’s choreography is pathbreaking in its own right. Whereas her choreography is saturated with pathos and sensuousness, foregrounding women and refusing to transcend clear gender divides, we can turn to the work of Wayne McGregor as pushing the limits of the human form and experimenting with the notion of shape-shifting. Both of these artists eschew older devices of both representation and narrative (which are too often linear and spatially predictable) as a way of understanding life and being. With McGregror, however, we move into a realm that is unapologetically plastic in how he treats the human form.

“Body is the plastic material of spacing” (Nancy, Corpus, p.63). Bodies, in McGregor’s work, disrupt, invent, and explode themselves and the space surrounding them. This plasticity is evident in his investigations into the relationship between the body, the brain, and the human form. A 2004 production, for instance, called Ataxia, explored the condition of that name, where there is a neurological and synaptic break or rupture between what the brain is doing and what the body is doing. In a more recent piece, entitled FAR, he attempts to think about the mind/body connection, and the Enlightenment, science and its interventions into the relationship between mind and body; and also other dualities, such as human and animal.

Overlayering this is a complex approach to how thought takes place at this philosophical-historical juncture. How is the brain engaged? Or is it the mind? What is the relationship between the mind and brain? MacGregor takes the concept of the mind and submits it to a shaking based on contemporary understandings of the brain. The circuit board in the background intimates this very contemporary intervention into more mainstream or traditional thinking about the Enlightenement. How thought took place then, is imagined differently, with contemporary theories and knowledge of how the brain operates in relation to the body.

In McGregor’s work, the dancers do rather than represent this way of thinking being. Their interpretation of concepts, events, phenomena is a doing that is non-narrative and non-linear in form. The considerations of how bodies and technologies are imbricated within one another happens in a scene where bodies mimic what movement would look like if fast-forwarded and replayed with a stutter on video. The dancer walks away after performing the technological mimicry, self-conscious of what he has done, which is to seemingly pierce the separation between movement represented and captured on celluloid and live, real time performance.

McGregor’s treatment of relationality is much less humanistic than Bausch’s, but no less instructive. With a score that blends electronica with animal noises- including pigs and horses, the dancers perform sequences that involve shape shifting between animal, human and cyborg forms. The beginning section of FAR embodies the notion of singularity; that each being, each of us, is uniquely singular. The movements of each dancer are of the same lexicon but are different from one another. They are in relation, sometimes, but not entirely alike. The second part of the piece seems to move in two other directions: dancers in unison, showing off McGregor’s grammar writ large; and dancers in relation to one another, often discordantly so. The dancers at some points seem to attract and repel like molecules. At others, they seem engaged with each other in twos and threes in a way that suggests direct, unmediated relationality. The pairs become entangled in a carnal embrace, writhing on the floor, and then shape shift into something else entirely.

The physicality of McGregor’s choreography, the grammar of the dance, and the ways in which concepts are rendered push the limits of the human form. It literally appears as though the bodies of the dancers are no longer human, but of some other order. This is testament in no small part to the exquisite skill of these dancers, of course, but the effect on the viewer is to impress and imprint one’s visual senses with the possibility of being radically otherwise. (For a taste of McGregor’s choreography being danced by a non-professional, see here).

There are many other examples of brilliant contemporary choreogaphy that one could utilise as a means of exploring how movement illuminates radical ruptures in everything from linearity and spatial fixity to paradigms of identity and difference. For instance, in Shobana Jeyasingh’s work dancers do not adhere to the mathematical strictures of the complex South Indian music that usually accompanies bharatanatyam, a classical form of dance. The space is utilised entirely differently; the dancers are no longer bound to the geometry of classical bharatanatyam, but break free into spaces and directions that might otherwise remain untouched in a traditional performance. The usual gendered nature of the roles performed in bharatanatyam are entirely cast aside and subverted.

In considering Pina’s advice that forms the title of this post, we might think about how dance as a medium of thought and action offers a material and embodied way of thinking about (and) being otherwise. The freeing up of the body into spaces that defy our usual vocabularies and create new grammars might at the very least, be a way of literally moving one’s life into a space of less fear and more freedom, always, and unavoidably, with each other.


1 Comment

  1. Hi. I’m just researching Pina Bausch for an article I’m writing about somebody else. I ‘m touched by your grasp of Bausch search for another way in the world through dance. I think that if we look closely at her Tanztheater it’s clear the point of departure or inspiration, as you indicate, is movement into words not words into movement. You might be interested in a French playwright called Nathalie Béasse who looks at herself as a playwright but who manages to put movement in front of words in her work – using visual cues and gestures in a remarkable, innovative way. Anyway, thanks for your thinking – 10 years on!


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