When I heard about her death I saw the sky darken like I did many decades ago when on a newspaper front page I read that the Che had been assassinated. These two beings had revolutionized my life, in their own ways.


Pina Bausch opened for us the doors of perception by using dance, the most magic of the arts, the most primitive one as well as the most sophisticated.


Having grown up in that post-war season that the French call “l’après-guerre,” with an early childhood submitted to the rhythms of bombings and destructions, she carried her fears, melancholy, and pessimism throughout her life, and mostly throughout her creations.


She created a new art form, dance/theater, neither the one nor the other, though both. She threw away all the paraphernalia of classical ballet and her women wore makeup and high heels, in a parody of femininity, and her men dressed like young men, people you can meet in the streets, moved like adolescents when inhabited by high fever. They danced like they would fight in a gang, they moved like Italians at night in Napoli looking at girls and making love mentally, spending their energies in useless movements that were an enchantment to watch… she used older men to torment women, pinch them, abuse them, harass them and carry them like trophies, throwing them on the floor like messed up towels… in a slow and steady atmosphere of terror.  We were always subjugated because that was our own lives, amplified, scrutinized, valorized by the attention they got on the stage, valorized by the transmutation of terror mixed with unexpected beauty, into art.


They compared her to Brecht, sometimes, linked her to her dance teachers and predecessors, but in fact she was unique in her kind. If anybody would come to mind in association, it would be Fassbinder: they both looked at their moment in History with utmost honesty, and more, with total courage, and spoke to us through their medium of choice, movement, for her, and another movement for him, that of cinema. But she resisted a suicidal instinct by creating a world more complex than the movie-maker’s, a world to which music and extravagant settings were a counterpoint, making us live a bewitching experience.


Even more than he, she was inventive artistically, breaking away  from the frontiers of her art.  Her choreography was often ritualistic, in her earlier works mostly, showing, for example, a procession of men pursuing women like tribal dancers in a Moroccan village… and the sense of ritual transformed the dance into a special kind of theatre. The tribal innocence was transferred to the West, and altered, and she knew all that that journey meant.


She also knew that the world is still vast in its variety, and that there are treasures in folk or popular arts… such as the tango, the fado, the Japanese or Turkish or Indian music…  and her rigorous attention given to the simple powers of enchantment that these traditions carry in them constantly renewed her imagination. Thus we were both in a cabaret and in the temple of contemporary art, both in the streets and inside a theatre space, both grounded in what was familiar and taken far and away.


She was a dancer, so her body knew how to speak. She seems to have always proceeded from her instinct, an infallible one. She completed dance like no one else before her. We were accustomed to paying attention to the dancers’ legs, attitudes, leaps and curbs... but she used the whole of the body, giving extreme importance to the arms and the hands of the dancer. Her arms were long, her hands particularly expressive. She danced sometimes as if she were swimming. She used her arms as the completion of the body, and she raised them straight up, becoming herself a fish in water, a shark, a desperate whale. Her hands seemed often to have a life of their own. They were long, expressive, often flapping like birds’ wings seeking air.  She was also almost still, with her arms seducing us while they were moving vertically as for ancient invocations rendered silent. It was as if the whole body relied on these arms, was putting  its weight on them, was uplifted, was freed by them from gravity.


She was a theatre person, destabilizing, with her genius, professionals like Heiner Müller. To the excessiveness of our historical moment she responded with her excessiveness of talent, her ability to create parallel worlds with other tools than airplanes and armies; with performances that took us into the horror, but also revived the will to survive, and survival with her had the colors of sunsets, the presence of young men, the barbaric rhythm of sheer life. Her version of The Rites of Spring happens in an Africa of the imagination, where the forces of the unconscious are unleashed so that the presence of death fuses with the origin of life.


Theatre or dance?: It is theatre because she addresses the whole range of human emotions, and it is dance because her world surges from nowhere and leads to nothing. She mixed them to create a new artistic form, probably nonimitable.


I think that one of the “characters” most active on her stage is Death. Everything turns around that not mentioned element. Her world originates in darkness and sometimes, mainly toward the late part of her life, seeks light. The Dionysian aspect of that world is orgiastic, over-active, ecstatic, because it proceeds from the dark side of the moon, so to speak. Her first and closest collaborator of the early years, Rolf Borzik, stated it clearly: “We are narrating something already dead, or in the process of dying.”


This is why desire  - with its immediacy, intimacy, enhanced by dance -  occupies such a place in Pina’s world-view: a desire expressed by a raw sexuality, the violence it creates in men and women, its despair. Dance is the most natural expression of desire, it is desire in movement. It starts with the animal courtship that mammals and birds perform to entice the females, it is in the elegance of the horse riders or the audacity of the Formula 1 car racers… Her own need for seduction, her instinctive knowledge of its expressions, of its ways, turned her dance/theatre into erotic performances.


Even the fragmentation of any action or scene on her stage is part of the strategy of desire, for the latter, to remain active, has to be constantly interrupted, to be altered, to shift… And we are carried along in the changes in the music, in the gestures, in the mood of the scene. That instability pervades her productions the way our own world is haunted by all other kinds of instability.


With Balanchine, for example, we were feeling that the dance was progressing by erasing its own steps, so that the memory of his pieces remains as the memory of line, light, and geometry. With Pina Bausch we remember a volume, a sphere, a semi-obscurity, music thrown in, broken  and removed, personal ways of moving, of advancing and receding; we remember a universe she denounces, and one she rebuilds, precarious in its brutality and precarious in its beauty.


Instability is created by the way she orchestrates her performances like a musical symphony. Being profoundly a romantic, she keeps her romanticism under control. She arrests every moment that is susceptible to turn into a coherent narration, every spell in danger of reaching a paroxysm. By breaking her rhythms incessantly, she creates a movement that is added to the other movements. In fact, there’s more than rhythm to her works: there’s a pulse, a pulsation like heart-beats. Essential, initial, unavoidable pulse.


When the scene is brutal, the music is romantic. When the lights and the behaviors are cruel,  the music is popular, is nostalgic, is basically human. And then, when the scene gives the impression that the action is slowing down and the situation becomes as banal as possible, the music is electronic, pounding, mechanical and oppressive; and each time we are caught, we are beyond our capacities for judgment, we’re ecstatic.

She proceeds the way a musician like Gubaidulina proceeds:  fragments of composition added next to, or on to other fragments, and pauses, creating a composition always at the point of sinking into chaos, and emerging into making sense. Bausch adds layers of sounds to movements of dancers who are distributed on the stage, or groups of dancers against other groups of two or three performers doing different things, while the background itself shifts and moves…


This is a jungle that we are in. She even showed the jungle once, she had women traversing it, fused with it. She had men stupefied by their own actions and youth disoriented. They danced as if dance were invented in order to displace the body in an adventure, every representation a voyage, a risky enterprise, a discovery.


With each work she seemed to start anew, at a beginning, so that each piece appeared to be also a workshop, achieving a strange kind of transparency. She made us aware of the workings of her mind, in a mysterious, unexplainable way. The same is true of her attitude toward movement itself. Dance started with stillness, stillness viewed as pregnant with movement. Thus she confided in an interview: “I look for a form to express what I feel simply, and suddenly this form has no relation to dance. Or, rather, dance is present but not shown directly. I mean that movements are so simple that one might think that they are not dance. For me, it’s the other way around. I think that in the people with whom I work, there is dance enormously, even when they are standing still.”


Ultimately, I consider her dance/theatre to be an opera, a renewal of opera. She worked with existing operas and created for them some of her most extraordinary choreographies. “Barbe-Bleue” is unforgettable, so inventive, so wild, so “right.” So is her “Orpheus and Eurydice.” From German expressionism to Greek tragedy she drew a straight line. She encompassed the two poles of German thinking. She did it like no one else. It is not to be explained with words, it had to be seen. But her own original creations could be considered as operas too, because, although they are not based on plot and singers, they belong to the spirit of opera: they offer a mixture of exciting elements, music is always prominent, the acting has the exaggeration that opera allows, dance is an integral part of the over-all production. Above all, there’s a sense of passion that has carried opera through the centuries, and it is there, in Pina Bausch too. That ecstatic effect that we expect from opera pervades her universe. In our memory, everything she did was song.


I saw her for the last time in June 2008 on the sidewalk adjoining the Theatre de la Ville, in Paris. I was sitting before the performance at the café Le Mistral, by the Theatre. She walked in front of my table toward the corner of the path, she seemed to rather slide slowly, looking straight-ahead, dressed with a long costume. She was utterly pale, her skin transparent, her eyes transparent. She looked like a ghost in movement. I knew that something was finished in her.


She looked like a remote replica of her old self in “Café Müller.” And the whole of “Café Müller” unfolded in front of my eyes, for that had been her archetypal creation, everything that she had simplified to the utmost, and the most telling. The subtext of all her creations is in there: her secret fear of madness, her involvement with it, because every time one reaches one’s furthest limits, one faces madness, madness waits there and stares at us, as one of the manifestations of death. And in “Café Müller” her old collaborator, Madness-into-Death, was all present, made bare: the young men were cracking their heads against tables, chairs, and walls, with the totality of their blind energies, and she was slowly dancing alone, at the corners, in the background, stretching and twisting her arms, in the dark, like an eye, death’s constant eye on the forces of life.


Death took her away.  All we can say is Dear Pina, auf wiedersehen!

Joomla SEF URLs by Artio

Buy Lana Turner #9

Issue 9 is HERE!

Order Now

@ltjournal on Twitter