Monday, July 6, 2009

What moves people

Pina Bausch, 1940-2009--an appreciation

Bausch in 1985

by Donna Perlmutter

Twenty-five years ago, here in Los Angeles, Pina Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal first appeared on the American scene and so jolted the dance avant-garde that it has not been the same since.

Among choreographers of the experimental ilk there is arguably not one who has been able, or wanted, to resist her influence. Until then the leading lights had been Martha Graham, she of the grand Greek narratives and Merce Cunningham, he of the conceptual abstract; they and others practiced their art with a pristine modern accent.

But Bausch pushed the boundaries beyond movement, beyond abstraction, beyond simple narrative. Her scope included every aspect of theater -- the spoken word, visuals, entire stage environments -- and bounced between the surreal, the expressionistic and the palpable here.

She was not to be taken lightly. Indeed, her company's 1984 debut at Pasadena Civic Auditorium -- a centerpiece of the International Olympic Arts Festival -- was met in New York with howls of critical protest. She outraged the "dance-must-be-only-dance" contingent, specifically those critics of an elite sect (not including Anna Kisselgoff and Deborah Jowitt) who believed strictly in Balanchine and Fred and Ginger and Merce, of course. For here was an artist demanding that the total human experience be revealed, not just its lovely, comforting distillations, but its darkly layered side as well.

Like Bausch, who grew up in the horror of World War II and is imbued with a Günter Grass mentality, her dancers were people with stories to tell, a Euro-version of "Chorus Line" -- but not the instantly sympathetic soap-opera types Broadway dispatched to us. No, these folks dug deeper, with their mentor's coaxing; they harbored facets of existential truth -- not theatricalized but real -- double-sided by a flinty humor tinged with irony, sometimes even openly innocent in an amazing, original way. They were/are informed dancing actors of supreme intelligence and emotional awareness, who never belabor those points.

Getting back to the beginnings, Bausch had studied dance at Juilliard (with Graham and Antony Tudor, for instance, those fellow-seekers of artistic truth) and even performed briefly with some of New York's leading companies. When she returned to Germany and finally accepted an invitation from the northern industrial city of Wuppertal to form a troupe there, no one predicted that she would make that municipality's name famous to theater-goers worldwide.

Until the theater visionary's death at 68 on July 1, her Wuppertalers have appeared regularly in New York, Paris, London, Vienna, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Lisbon and Seville, never able to fill all the requests from other cities. Their last visit to Los Angeles in 2007 came only after UCLA/Live's director David Sefton traveled to Paris just to persuade Bausch (successfully) to bring her latest piece, the Japanese-based "Ten Chi," to Royce Hall.

And it was thrilling. By now, the older company members were not only familiar to us, but so steeped in life and having so ready a performance-conduit to it that they could enact their humorous little fetishes, their quiet frettings and fulminatings in the most seductively, confessional way. What we got to see amid their giddy, impulsive outbursts, their tantalizing encounters tinged with erotic innuendoes was Dominique Mercy, for instance, a weathered blond in shirt and trousers who came to the stage-edge, smiling, and pretended to invite his front-row patrons to snore -- yes, snore -- in the same way that he pointedly demonstrated, in long, sleek rumbles, his manner irresistibly intimate and helpfully coaxing (never mind the absurdity), and ever smiling.

So was Mechthild Grossmann touching-close as she strolled into the audience, speaking imperiously of her love-lorn anguish in deep Dame Edith Sitwell tones, only to appear onstage later in a short cocktail dress as a naively hopeful man-catcher beseeching the stars -- thus giving us two sides of a persona. And how could we forget Helena Pikon doing another version of her 1996 "Nur Du" solo -- where, in short shorts, fishnet hose and high heels she did cartwheels across the stage while excitedly yelling "he's coming to see me!" only to end up bemoaning "he's not coming to see me." The piece was also rife with funnybone parodies of japonaiserie -- competitive bowing and deliberated word pronunciation (kimono, bonsai, Mt. Fuji), none of it lost in translation.

But Bausch did not begin on her path so lightheartedly. At first encounter she was the central figure of Picasso-blue-period sorrow in "Café Müller," casting about blindly, crashing into chairs, while other strange figures whizzed past in manic fugue states. Per chance to dream? In a hazy grey nightmare scored by Purcell? Similarly her "Bluebeard -- On Listening to a Tape Recording of 'Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Bartok)" showed the women skittering from wing to wing mindlessly and finally plastering themselves high on the walls like gothic bats in long gowns. These are indelible images, paintings in motion that the mind's eye obsessively clutches.

In "Rite of Spring," the women formed a corps quaking so powerfully in fearful anticipation, that the episode triggered a kinesthetic response. At each juncture, in fact, Bausch re-emphasized the crippling torment of fear, while tons of peat moss, spread on the stage floor, gave off the smell of damp earth and flew in the air as dancers trounced on it.

All this came counterbalanced by studies in absurdity, on the benign indifference of the universe, on life as a lark, on harmless human foibles. Throughout her oeuvre Bausch took us to the simple heart of the matter. She was the keenest observer of people and their behavior -- in all its paradoxes and levels of defensiveness.

"Nur Du," a western-states commission, was her first piece created outside of Europe. Its title, which calls to mind "Wien, Wien, nur Du allein," leaves behind the eponymous city Vienna and latches onto American pop culture in its translation: "Only You." But, as usual, Bausch tapped into nostalgia with antennae that are universal, incorporating the doo-wop Platters' title song. One episode takes an amused look at Hollywood's obsession with bodies -- illustrated by having dancers take off their clothes in a provocative manner, finding pleasure or horror in what they see, as someone finally utters a mock profundity: "I'm naked under my clothes!"

As for music, Bausch had a remarkably sophisticated range -- "Nur Du" rounded up a sound track that had authentic fado and tango recordings, mixed in with jazz favorites like Jeri Southern singing "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and Sidney Bechet playing "What Is Thing Called Love?" juxtaposed with '50s hit tunes by Jo Stafford and Les Paul.

The whole collection of her work showed her to be, variously, a fearless primitive, a keen yet loving satirist, a punster who bridged the arcane and the simple, a Mensch with a world view that did not shy away from sorrow, a purveyor of the unmitigated unconscious.

What can we say of the artist who, in the best tradition, was reclusive and humble? She herself once admitted: "I am just a human being. All this incredible praise frightens me. I'm sure that what comes out in my pieces is very sincere. But, remember, it was made just by little humans."

Few can argue that the extravaganzas she created with her Wuppertalers are an invaluable treasure -- although a fierce East Coast critics' crowd continues to march lock-step in protest of her, starting back in 1984 when the New Yorker's Arlene Croce coined the term "Eurotrash" to define Bausch and labeled her work "the pornography of pain." Well, I suppose they still need to keep the curtains drawn.

But never mind. She certainly didn't -- and went her own way.

"I am not so much interested in how people move as what moves them," Bausch once said, repeating the mantra of Antony Tudor to explain that steps and movement, for their own sake, are insufficient.

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