Pina Bausch and the Definition of Dance

I hesitated to write about Pina Bausch immediately after her death. First, I had long had reservations about her work, though mine were a little different from those of some others. Then second, I decided I should watch Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," which I had never seen and which frames the plot with footage of Bausch's "Cafe Mueller" (in which she appears) and "Masurca Fogo." Thought it might cast some new light on her than my own recollections and previously voiced opinions.

A wonderful if weird movie, but it didn't reshape my feelings about Bausch. My complaints over the years, like those of others, had to do with the episodic quality of her dances, a growing sense that if you had seen a few of them, you had "gotten" her sensibility, and didn't need to sit through any/many more. This grumpiness was partly alleviated by "Bamboo Blues," which came to BAM last year and provided a refreshing, moving, sexy look at human nature, as if Bausch had been enlivened by the exoticism of India, both traditional India and Bollywood India.

What was wonderful about Bausch was the vividness of her company and hence "cast" members, combiined with some lush and amusingly bizarre settings and a kind of mordant quirkiness in her view of the human comedy.

What separated me from other doubters was the rage she seemed to unleash in what rmight be called the (aesthetically, sometimes politically) neo-con cadre of dance critics, starting with their den mother, Arlene Croce. Croce simply despised Bausch (and that of too many other "post-modern": choregraphers). She and her followers did so for some or the same reasons that underlay my own reservations, but their main objection seemed to be that she wasn't really making dance, and when she did do dance, it was choreographically trivial.

The issue beneath this difference has to do with what we think dance (or the arts in general) actually is/are. In classical music, a common attack against any innovator (Wagner, Ives, Cage) has been that what they were doing "wasn't music." That meant that it wasn't like the music the critics liked. The newcomers often practiced a different technique or approach to what had become a codified (ossified) notion of dance, the pedants vs. the rule-breakers.

This is hardly to say that innovation is by definition good and hence objections to even failed innovation are baseless. But a conviction that the critic knows for sure what music or dance (or art or theater or film or...) are can blinker a sensibility to the new. A critic is not a Moses-like law-giver. The truer purpose of criticism is to reflect what the artists are doing, to perceive it more sharply and clearly than others do. Not necessarily to rubberstamp the artists or to champion them, but to enter into a public dialogue with them.

In Bausch's case, she was a pioneer of Tanztheater, or dance theater, meaning the re-introduction (after the stripped down modernist abstraction of Balanchine, Cunningham et al.) of overt theaterical elements into the body-movement experience. She was not, in my opinion as well as that of the more conservative critics, a paritcularly interesting deviser of bodily movement -- i.e., of choreography in the strict sense. Her dancing didn't always require elaborate physical training, though a lot of if was harder than it might have looked. But the seeming casualness of the movement posed a seemingly insurmountable problem for her hostile critics right away.

For me, since I am perfectly willing, even eager, to accept "natural movement" and "physical theater" as worthy of sympathetic consideration by a "dance" critic, the problem with Bausch was the intermittently compelling, intermittently boring, revue-like nature of her pieces. In other words, she didn't always make the best "dance theater," even if you had fully accepted the balance of dance and theater in her work. Still, at her best she could be funny and moving and deeply emotional. As Pedro Almodovar clearly believes with all his heart. 

July 5, 2009 4:58 PM | | Comments (2)


Random thoughts:

When Pina's company first appeared at BAM in 1984, and I was a publicist there, her partner, a professor of semiotics, I believe, insisted that her work was "simple": about communication between beings, the lack of it, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and how her work mirrors life. So the repetition, or seeming lack of structure, in her work reflects our own inner beings.

She was onto "us" in a way uncharted by other theater artists. And what I recall are powerful images-in-motion, all expressive of conflicting emotions, drives, needs, urges, even self-destructive ones,
of such potency and veracity that only the greatest poets in any form of art could depict. And her performers.... they loved and trusted her.

She revived belief in the power of theater for non-dance makers: I know for a fact that she did for a facile, language-driven young playwright.

Bausch was an extraordinary dancer herself, mesmerizing, not merely because of her long-limbed lyricism, although that was part of the enchantment.

And where does the line between choreography and stage direction blur? Recently saw an astonishing production of Chekhov's "Ivanov" from Hungary, and it made me think of Pina, over and over again.

Hi John, I can understand your objection to the episodic rhythm of Pina Bausch's work, and I can understand the objection that it is not "dance." Actually I think the second objection happens only because the "theater" part or the glimpses of narrative are so memorable that they may eclipse the dancing. But step for step, solo for solo, the movement is amazing. Each dancer twists and knots and expands and explodes in a different way, a way that is true to that dancer. I find the solos exciting to watch, but they need to be edited because each is repeated about the same number of times. Every solo in Bamboo Blues is gorgeous—there are just too many of them.
As to your objection to the episodic structure, I think a bit of editing in all the pieces, Bamboo Blues included (the first half is soooo much more concise and pithy than the second half), would do it a world of good. But for me the hugeness of her imagination, whether it's inspired by India, Hong Kong, or Istanbul, overwhelms the faults of the structure, and I find myself sort of bathing in the beauty, oddness, humor, seduction, and panic of her vision.


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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on July 5, 2009 4:58 PM.

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