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
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
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
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.