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Realigned Presence
By Royd Climenhaga







Pina (Philippine) Bausch: 1940 - 2009

A woman walks to the edge of the stage with a sense of purpose. She holds a long sheaf of pasta and talks directly to the audience, accusing and scolding us. "This is my spaghetti. It all belongs to me. No one else can have any. It is mine. . . . You see this pasta. [She holds up a strand.] It is mine. It doesn't belong to anyone else, it belongs to me. It is all mine. You can't have any. It is mine. . . . " She speaks in German, but no translation is necessary. She makes the act of ownership abundantly clear.

This little moment comes toward the beginning of Palermo, Palermo (1989), a piece developed by Pina Bausch and her company Tanztheater Wuppertal in response to their residency in Palermo, Sicily. Nazareth Panadero, the woman who devised this performed image and who presents it here, wandered through the streets of Palermo looking at the old women who stood in the doorways, radiating their ownership of place. She took what she saw and created a metaphor for her experience, so that we could feel a version of what she felt when she walked down that street. Much later in the piece, long-standing company member Dominique Mercy slowly walks across the stage with that same sheaf of pasta under his arm. He looks out at the audience with a sly grin, pulls out one piece of pasta and deliberately breaks it, and then another, and another, all the while looking at us with a conspiratorial glimmer.

We had not seen Panadero's pasta-woman since that early moment nearly two hours before, and no further reference to the pasta had occurred. The bookended incidents were simply two images among many intertwined in the piece, and the subject of violation of ownership was one facet of a complex and carefully calibrated impression the performance left.

The way those incidents were generated by everyday experiences, then elaborated in rehearsal, and then woven into the overall work is what constituted choreography for Pina Bausch. Her career began in more traditional movement-based ideas of dance and choreography, but she soon began to branch out into this more exploratory process of building pieces, using the physicality of her performers in a raw presentation of her themes. She didn't refer to the inherent brutality of sexual agendas, for instance; she enacted them. Throughout this period, she maintained a dancer's means of developing work as an orchestration of elements in time and space, and even though she often integrated theatrical strategies, her works were never based in an interpretation of a script and she never completely accepted character or story as constructive principles.

Her pieces always layered images, physicality, music and sometimes text to create a dense fabric of meaning. Of course dance had always utilized those elements, and theater was also constructed from the same materials. But most dance asks us to see past the performer to the emotive quality of the movement, and conventional theater similarly asks us to look past the actual event on stage to consider the creation of the character and story enacted. Bausch asked us to see what was actually on stage -- often her performers physically engaged in metaphorical performative images -- and pursue that through an indirect path toward the underlying feeling structure of an essential state of being. In concentrating on the actual condition of those elements of performance, she was able to redirect our attention away from the dancer as a conduit for movement, or the actor as a portrayer of character, and toward the dancer-actor in the moment, appreciated for his or her expressive content. Her true innovation was in this realignment of performative principals and means of construction.

The character of the pasta woman was presented as the embodiment of a metaphor, and the context that surrounded that image and gave it shape was a mesh of impressions drawn from the entire company's experience in Palermo. That experience was crafted to create a broader insight in the piece into a feeling of loss that lives within the Palermo culture and extends beyond that to reflect our own experience. Bausch and her company gave the intangible feeling of a faded culture palpable form, not by re-presenting it or by mirroring its surface, but by creating metaphors that expanded beyond the context from which it derived. The particular was made universal and the abstract was made metaphorically concrete. We were left with what we saw on stage, and we were forced to place that within our own referential frames to derive any deeper meaning from the pieces.

Inge Baxman once described going to Bausch's performances as an archeological dig, unearthing images that are beguiling in themselves and that all connect to create a larger picture of what you know is down there somewhere. Each shard you uncover reveals a portion of a new civilization. That's certainly the way it felt when I first encountered Bausch's work. I was questioning the whole conceit of theater, the pretense of creating another world and investing any belief in this person as another person, or this place as another place.

Film did that better, I thought, and I longed for a theater of more immediate means, something that was what it said it was and simply did things on stage that were provocative or compelling. The dance classes I was taking at that time (early 1980s) held part of the answer; people were just doing things on stage without asking for an investment in an imagined world. But there was so much emphasis on movement qualities, on articulating the body as a disenfranchised other, that I felt lost there too. I really had no idea what I was trying to do, or how to do it, until I saw Pina Bausch. Even then, I still had no idea how she did the things she did, or why they affected me so strongly. But once I found her I had something to point to, something to latch on to and say, "there, that, what she did."

Trying to figure out how Bausch did what she did led me into German Expressionist Dance, deeper into Brecht, and dumped me square in the midst of Artaud's garden, a place where performance allowed "the magical means of art and speech to be exercised organically and altogether, like renewed exorcisms" (The Theater and its Double). I'm still trying to understand what "renewed exorcisms" are, but in Bausch's work at least, performance felt like an expulsion of spirits. An inner world was given outward expression, yet it was contained within the tissue that kept the performative images together.

Artaud goes on to explain that "it is a question then of making the theater, in the proper sense of the word, a function; something as localized and as precise as the circulation of the blood in the arteries or the apparently chaotic development of dream images in the brain." This passage grants the precision of bodily attitude a purpose, and fits Bausch's idea that rigorous work on crafting movement structures and carefully defining language, image, sound and context were necessary to create a connection to a deeper structure. Much of the dance of that era attempted to connect to deeper structures through abstraction and the expressive quality of movement for movement's sake, and the growing field of performance art explored the power of disassociated performance images.

But the American dance I saw around 1985, the time of Bausch's first major foray into America, felt cold and aloof by comparison, and the performance art often descended into just plain silliness. Bausch's performers did some pretty silly things too, like upbraiding the audience about pasta, but there was a connective element that grounded the work and made it all make sense, even if you couldn't quite articulate what that sense was. Bausch changed the game to get to an inarticulate sense, something more felt than understood, and the performance community took notice.

Bausch's work has had tremendous impact across the spectrum of late twentieth-century performance practice. It helped to redefine the possibilities of what both dance and theater can be. Without stopping to systematically apply any given theory, she incorporated ideas from her dance background and drew on theatrical innovations, reinterpreting base operating principals for the stage as she erased boundaries between disciplines. The loss of Bausch's inquisitive spirit and bold approach to the stage will be immense, but her influence continues and the images from her pieces are etched inside thousands who have been fortunate enough to see them.

The door to a more direct approach to the stage--a performance of presentation rather than re-presentation--was opened and widened by a great parade of innovators, from Appia and Craig to Artaud, Grotowski, Brook, Cage, Cunningham and many others. But no one lived on the other side as completely as Bausch. For my part, I didn't know the door existed until I saw someone on the other side dancing. She leaves no map for how to get there, no technique to drill into one's body, simply the images of her audacity, the leaps she made to try to make something happen on stage. It's inspiration enough.


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