Feature: So long Pina, so long desire...

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch 'Agua'  Julie Shanahan Photo: Oliver Lock

Reviews of World Cities 2012

The epic Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch World Cities 2012 season drew to a close on Monday 9 July. Over 25,000 seats have been sold for ten massively-scaled productions mounted over five weeks and greeted with standing ovations of varying intensity every single night. Although critical response has also been largely positive, one often voiced comment has been made across the board – ‘But why do they have to be so long?!’ Jeffrey Gordon Baker thinks that question misses the point…

Pina Bausch was an artist, not an entertainer. This is the case despite the fact that her pieces are frequently quite good fun, highly entertaining. The World Cities 2012 series will soon come to a close, concluding what has been a particular kind of retrospective of arguably the most influential choreographer and one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Dissatisfied with the limitations of the vocabulary she inherited from her choreographic progenitors, Bausch expanded the definition of the medium of dance, doing so brazenly in the service of her own personal artistic preoccupations. The fact that the results of her experiments changed everything for subsequent generations of practitioners or even that people were often entertained by her efforts, was incidental to her purpose, so focused she was upon producing the work.

“As soon as I’ve created a piece, I want to create a new one immediately…the best thing would be if you could keep going immediately.”

The veracity of this comment, from a rare interview in 1990, is borne out in the structure of many of the World Cities pieces, in which sequences from the very beginning recur again near the end. The Independent’s Zoe Anderson comments on this device in her review of Viktor “[it’s] as if Bausch seriously plans to run the whole thing through again. It’s an exhausting thought.” Even positive reviews of the shows this season almost always mention the lengthy running times, either as a curiosity or a criticism, but never as a good thing, let alone a necessity. In her review of Nefes for the Evening Standard, Lyndsey Winship says Bausch “may have been a genius but she was one in need of a good editor.” stating that her work “would surely be more potent in a concentrated form.” In his grinningly dismissive review of Ten Chi and Der Fensterputzer for The Telegraph, Mark Monahan instructs us that “Great art knows not only what to give, but how much of it to give.” This seems to imply that Bausch was ignorant as to her own intentions in making the pieces so long. What is absent in these criticisms is any consideration of why she may have made this valid artistic choice.

Perhaps a clue to this is to be found in the idea of repetition itself, a trope that permeates Bausch’s work in a variety of ways. In the same interview she commented that “The evenings are like pieces of music: they’re not created to be watched once and once only. I see them very often and know how different they can be, what can happen to people.” Curiously she doesn’t make clear what people she means, so presumably this could be audience, performers or most likely, both. This statement indicates that Bausch was aware of the potential effects of her work, its repeated performing and viewing, which would explain why repetitions of movements and motifs are conspicuously built into them. There is also the repeated use of the same performers; some of her company have been with her for decades, dancing into their 50s and 60s. How interesting it must have been to see what happened to them, to their bodies and to the pieces themselves as they repeatedly performed over the course of a life.

“Everybody in Palermo seems to desperately want something , but nobody seems to be able to articulate what it is.” This pertinent observation, made by Lise Smith in her review of Palermo, Palermo for this site, could be made of any piece in the series, indeed almost any Bausch piece I can think of. You could be forgiven for thinking that desire was the basic subject matter of all her work. If this were so I would agree with the critics cited above, less would be more. But instead we are given hours of images and scenes, in which the realisation of desire is subverted, thwarted, denied, lost, forgotten, or simply found to be…wanting. Characters literally leap, climb or slide across objects, obstacle courses and each other to get a single kiss or cuddle, they beg for affection and then refuse it as being either too much or not enough. Nothing is consummated, but rather the interminable perpetuity of the condition of desiring itself is repeatedly demonstrated. No, the pieces are not about desire, they are made from it. It is the cloth from which they are cut.

The vacuum created by this impossible circuit of desire deferred, is the true subject of Bausch’s work, and it is into this vacuum that the joy in the work rushes: the splashing in the water, the fireworks of flower petals and playful group numbers, the generous and egalitarian sharing of ‘One watermelon, cut in two, one for you and one for me.’ With great respect for the works, I would say that they are in fact full of holes. Circles are drawn on the floor and in the air; a hole in a sock is futilely filled in with paint; cracks open up in the floor or the whole piece is performed in a ditch. But it is the dozens of solo dances that perforate the evenings that provide the most consistent information about the meaning of empty space in the works.

Appearing seemingly from nowhere and for no reason, these hyper-gestural solos are like gaps in the narrative of obstructed desire into which a kind of sign language is poured. Fernando, Julie, Eddie, Nazareth, Ditta, Damiano, Regina, Rainer, Christiana, Ruth et al, point to their bodies, stroke their arms and their hair, gnash their teeth, gasp and grasp at the air; often face front, staring at us imploringly through the storm of tiny movements, they seem to be saying “Here it is! No, it’s gone. Did you see it? Oops, lost it. Found it! Whoosh! There it goes again. Catch it!” The Wuppertal dancers are nothing if not individuals and they glow with qualities you want in performers: beauty, humour, stage presence by the truckload and stamina (ten shows in five weeks!). But there are no stars in this constellation, only singularities.

Bausch’s pieces have to be as long as they are in order for us to appreciate their point; namely the enduring nature of the engulfing absence left by desire, even in the presence of the people we love, the very things we crave. What is this emptiness that we fill with so much but can never be full? Bausch showed us over and over at length, using the bodies and personalities of the dancers she herself loved: it’s us.

Image: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch ‘Agua’ Julie Shanahan Photo: Oliver Lock

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a New Yorker in London studying for a PhD in Aesthetic Theory at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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