Have you heard of Pina Bausch? If you have, then you know. If you haven’t, expect a strong emotional reaction.
A woman in a long, silk dress is on all fours in one corner of the stage. Two men approach. They pick her up, non aggressively. She screams until they put her down. They continue to pick her up and move her around the stage, and every time they do, she screams until they put her down. The fact that the woman is on all fours is provocative, isn’t it? The men certainly make this assumption, and so does the audience. What does that tell you? A lot about gender politics.
The scene is a Pina Bausch dance. It’s not really a dance, so much as extreme stage directions that require the actors to have dancer-like control over their bodies.
In another scene/ dance, a perfectly turned out woman sits poised on a chair and as she picks up her handbag from the floor and gets something out of it, a man pours a bottle of water over her head. She doesn’t flinch. He repeats the act; she repeats the defiance.
In another, a man climbs along a rope, horizontally, across the length of the stage. It’s difficult but he makes it. Meanwhile a woman is tied by another rope around her waist and is running with everything she has at the rope the man is climbing, but she cannot reach his rope because her rope holds her back.
In another, a man is carrying a woman. [See video below] He drops her and she falls to the floor with a thud. She gets up quickly and they embrace. Another man enters the stage and separates them, then puts them back together in a different pose. They resume their original pose against the second man’s will. The acts are repeated over and over and over, and over to the nth degree. What does it tell you? A lot about sustaining a relationship.
Pina Bausch was a German dancer and choreographer who died in 2009, at the age of 68. She was possibly the Lord of the Dance incarnate, with a religious fan base and such faithful dancers that they often devoted their entire lives to her company. After a covetable education at various dance academies including Julliard in the ‘60s (often the name that gets people going – or maybe just Save the Last Dance fans), Pina started her own company in 1973, called Tanztheater Wuppertal, which is still thriving and based in Wuppertal, Germany. The company tour the world; they were in London a few weeks ago at Sadler’s Wells, and are in Australia now. More details on where you can see them at the bottom and be quick as performances consistently sell out.
Pina, and her life’s work were the subject of a Wim Wenders film that came out in 2011, titled simply: Pina. Wenders recounts his first experience of her in a talk at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. He was in Venice with his then girlfriend, who wanted to go and watch a Pina Bausch retrospective at a theatre one night. He’d never heard of her. “I caved in, ready for a boring night,” he says, “and it became a night that really, truly changed my life. […] Five minutes into the play saw me on the edge of my seat in tears and I did not understand what was happening to me, I really had no idea, I was weeping, I didn’t know why. […] In 40 minutes, this woman, this unknown woman Pina Bausch, showed me more about the relationship between men and women than I’d ever seen in any movie and in the whole history of cinema. I could not believe it. The whole thing without a word – just six dances and music and that was it.”
The dance we see in the modern world – in music videos most often – is usually about skill, speed and precision, i.e. the power of the body. Sometimes it’s about sex (like “Work” by Rihanna), sometimes it’s about race (like “Formation” by Beyoncé), but while the dances are embedded, of course, in race and culture, the moves themselves aren’t emotional; it’s the styling of the video, the lyrics, what the song is about. Generally speaking, the point of the dance part of the video is to look cool. Pina Bausch’s dances are so far from this. Firstly, they don’t look cool, they aren’t the type of dances kids would watch on Youtube and practise in their bedrooms. They are stand-alone statements and narratives in and of themselves, about society, gender, freedom, the power of men over women, the power of women over men. The style is avant-garde, truly – and still – despite being around since the ‘70s when Pina started doing her thing.
One of the first things you notice from her work is that all of her dancers are beautiful. And vary greatly in age. Performances feature men and women in their fifties and sixties who have been with the company since the early days. Pina was a very beautiful woman herself, and her dancers are very much made in her image. The women typically wear long silky dresses in rich colours, and almost unanimously have long, flowing hair. They are deliberate visions of traditional femininity, practically parodies of their race. Much of the choreography is about this quest for beauty, and about its undeniable, enduring power over men. For instance, a tall, stunning woman in a red dress and stilettos walks across the stage, leaving men whimpering in her wake, desperate for her attention. The point being: is that all it takes? Another scene takes the fuddy “women’s hobby” of knitting and turns it into a seductive act. There’s a Laurel and Hardy, pantomime style wit to it.
One of Pina’s early dancers in the company, Catherine Denisot Lawrence, said of her teacher: “Pina was a wonderful person, soft spoken, very patient, and very demanding, and we loved her, but she had a one-track mind; what she wanted to do was going to be accomplished.”
In one memorable dance, women physically run up men’s bodies as the men are sat on chairs, legs outstretched, gazing in adoration at the women who trample over them.
Pina was a visionary. Her work is worth so much. The performances are old-fashioned, like silent movies, and yet just as powerful to watch today. Each dance is a dissertation on gender politics. As Wenders romantically puts it: "is it dance, is it theatre, or is it just life, love, freedom, struggle, longing, joy, despair, reunion, beauty, strength."
The Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal are touring Europe this Spring. More details here: www.pina-bausch.de