Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"You're not nice!" : remembering Pina Bausch

I stood in the stage right wing of the BAM Opera House watching the brilliant performers of Tanztheater Wuppertal in their dresses, suits, button shirts and pants slide on their butts through 3 inches of water along a diagonal line from the back to the front corners of this full-stage puddle.

All hell had broken loose. Lively music percolated the scene. Elsewhere on the lake, company men and women ran on and off in dresses piling clothes on a line of women seated in chairs. Two scale model triple-masted galleons sailed towards each other across the water from opposite wings. Coming amidships they simultaneously fired full volleys, and this caused their paper sails to burst into flame.

As the sliders moved and stopped, moved and stop they found themselves constantly splashed by a lithe young woman who ran from one to another with seeming abandon. Suddenly the woman they all called Pina stood at my shoulder.

By the time of this third BAM performance of her 3 hour Arien, I already understood what her presence onstage portended. Something must have seemed off to her from her customary aisle seat in the last row of the house orchestra section. Never one to wait, she had arrived backstage to sort things out.

Taking the splasher aside, she spoke intently and rapidly to her in German, her smokey voice rumbling with low passion and no-nonsense energy. The object of her attention had not performed in this role during the first two shows, and this must have represented the dancer's debut as a torturer. Breaking into English, Pina capped off her coaching. "Remember," she exhorted with a rising emphasis, "you are not nice!"

Philipina "Pina" Bausch would never hesitate to challenge you. She has famously been quoted as saying "I'm not interested in how people move, but in what moves them."

Wild thing, like many others, particularly performers, choreographers, theater artists, filmmakers, and writers across two generations, your evening-length dream scapes moved me. You could be in equal parts inspiring and exasperating; encouraging and intimidating; exhilarating and cautionary; horrifying and incredibly funny.

I remember theater artist Robert Wilson's pithy one sentence appreciation of your poignant and hilarious 1980, the elegy you and your company created in the wake of the loss of your late lover and collaborator Rolf Borzig. The afternoon after we both had seen its opening night in your Next Wave series at BAM, I asked for his reaction. Measuring his phrases, his Texas-sized smile brightening to include wonder and glee, he intoned with increasing volume and incredulity,

"I can't believe how those dancers
could do comedy
in English!"

Truly no language of humanity has proved beyond your reach.

I had already seen your Rite of Spring, and Cafe Muller and perhaps even Bluebeard. (The sequence escapes me.) But 1980 opened a door for me.

Without really understanding why, I had spoken up for another balcony ticket when it became available the night of my conversation with Wilson. As the second 3 1/2 hours of your waking dream began to wash over me, I witnessed the beguiling Beatrice Libonati crouch to kiss the green sod that covered the stage, just as she had several times the evening before. But this time her plaintive and now reliably predictable repeated declaration made me suddenly shiver. For when she looked up as if in wonder at the end of her task to declaim her lilting Italian-accented, "This piece of meadow is six kisses wide," it finally hit me that you had taken us to the grave site. And a piece that had been merely been an intriguing and pleasant semi-comic diversion the evening before now became a piquant meditation.

I watched again one of your achingly gorgeous women -- for no matter how pretty or feminine, your girls, like you, always had steel -- amble deliberately across the back of the green as if reviewing the line of six suited men who had formed up near the left corner. They had all dropped trou and stood, bare ass to us, as she regarded with frank, evident and unhurried curiosity the sexual endowment of each one in turn. "These must be the pallbearers," I told myself, touched beyond tears by the candid humanity of the moment. I stand as one of them today, a witness in honor of you.

More to come.

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