By Royd Climenhaga
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
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.