Tag Archives: pina bausch

PINA in Seattle

24 Jan

As you may recall, 2009 was a rough year for the world of modern dance, with the passing of two iconic choreographers in Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. Cunningham was 90, had carefully laid out plans for the future of his company and his works, and died peacefully, as if ready to leave, but Bausch’s passing was unexpected—a cancer diagnosis was followed by her death a mere five days later and only two days before a documentary about her was to begin filming. Director Wim Wenders cancelled the project, but at the behest of the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal, was encouraged to make the film anyway. Given the rave reviews worldwide, we should be glad he did and I was very lucky to be invited to an advance screening in Seattle for Pina in 3D.

Normally, I find 3D movies to be a bit disorienting and maybe even a little nauseating, but I didn’t mind it at all in Pina. Filming dance in general can be tricky because inevitably, something is missed whether it’s a complete picture or a minute detail (in the words of the master herself, “the tiniest detail matters”) but the director had a clear vision of what he wanted—one of Bausch’s most prominent works featured at the beginning of the film was her Le Sacre du Printemps, captured perfectly from unique angles and views that didn’t diminish the work at all. I would even say I was surprised by how well it was filmed because it was as if the camerawork followed exactly what needed to be seen, and actually enhanced the work by providing insight through visual cues. When a group of female dancers huddle in a circle, each one running up to a man to offer herself, the camera is positioned from his perspective and you see every ounce of terror in their eyes and the subject of Igor Stravinsky’s famous score is revealed—human sacrifice. First made famous by Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet that caused audiences to riot, and a popular choice amongst a number of his contemporaries, it’s Bausch’s interpretation that stands out and it’s in her ability to see truth that makes it so. Though ritual sacrifice is a forgone practice in modern times it’s still a part of our history and thus a part of humanity, and for me, that’s what Bausch’s choreography taps into. While being incredibly physically demanding and somewhat abstract, Bausch’s Le Sacre still achieves a sense of reality. It doesn’t literally depict a rite, but unmistakably shows through movement the visceral, primeval nature of such an act.


Azusa Seyama, Andrey Berezin, dancers of the ensemble of “Sacre du Printemps” in Wim Wenders’ PINA. ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

In addition to substantial performance footage, the documentary is laced with interviews with Tanztheater dancers—well, not “interviews” exactly, because they’re almost never shown speaking, just staring into the camera while they narrate what they would say (sorry, I know that sounds confusing). Each dancer describes their experiences in dancing for Bausch (or not, as some are completely silent on the matter) and dance short, original pieces (many of them outdoors) as a tribute to her and it was fascinating to be able to hear what they had to say in words and see how they expressed their elegies in movement (curiously, one dancer chose to pad a pair of pointe shoes with veal and bourée to her heart’s content). It made me think of what it means for a legendary icon to bestow a legacy and in the case of Bausch, it seems as though she didn’t just teach her dancers her style and choreography, but also empowered them to know themselves. Returning to this idea of her having an uncanny ability to see truth, many of the dancers had beautiful, poetic words to say about how she opened their eyes and for those dancers to be able to be independent and create dances in her honor is remarkable. In similar situations where an artist dies their followers may find themselves in a mad scramble to catalog and preserve, but Bausch’s dancers had a quiet calm about them, saddened by her passing but also ready to fly freely on their own terms.


Damiano Ottavio Bigi and Clémentine Deluy in Wim Wenders’ PINA. ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

I was happy to see two of Bausch’s most prominent works that I had learned about a few years ago in school: Café Müller and Kontakthof. That was during what I like to call my “pre-enlightenment” period, when I was still a rather green student of dance, not confident in my opinions about it, and not self-aware of what I even could learn. I have a few visual memories of watching both pieces on the screen in Sullivant Hall, though I only have foggy clues as to what my reactions to both pieces were. This is not to say that they aren’t profound—far from it—only that I was not apt to form a coherent, memorable response. I remember enjoying the idea behind restaging Kontakthof­ with a bunch of elderly people instead of dancers, and it seems in recent years it underwent another transformation by having a cast of young teenagers perform it. It says a lot about the versatility of the work and Bausch’s creative genius, not to mention the courage to change her work so drastically without any fear of diminishing its artistic impact.

Excerpt from Kontakthof:


As for Café Müller…well, I have to be honest and say when I first saw it I’m pretty sure I had no idea what to make of it, but what I found fascinating this time around was one section where a couple are locked in an embrace, and a third man manipulates their bodies until the man of the couple is left holding the woman—and drops her. This repeats again and again, frenetically increasing in speed and each time they return to that same embrace. I took it as a representation of societal expectations of love and how it’s impossible to do anything but what you know instinctively, and watching Café Müller truly opened my eyes to one of the themes of the film, and that is the love between Pina and her dancers. Love can in fact be separated from romance and with more recent portrayals of directors and choreographers being crudely egotistical, it’s important for the audience to see an instance of mutual love and respect. Particularly in the US where George Balanchine is so well known for loving his dancers, bestowing gifts of perfume to his muses and creating extraordinary ballets on them, he’s revered to a point of being held up on a pedestal, whereas Pina and her dancers had something far less romantic and weepy, but still something incredibly strong and emotionally fulfilling.

Pina concludes with vibrant excerpts from Vollmond, an epic work of dance that has rain and flooding and is by far the most physically demanding of Pina’s work I’ve seen. Though the film still isn’t what I would call a crash course on Pina Bausch, but it does illustrate the kind of work she did in both vivid and thoughtful detail. Even as someone who knew a few bits about Pina, I learned so much and have re-shaped ideas about what it means to love art. My conclusion (while incomplete) is now including a theory that whether it is a love for honing one’s craft, or a love of something that inspired one to create, all art is born from love, and it doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful, just genuine.

Excerpt from Vollmond:


For Seattle area readers, Pina will have a limited run at the Cinerama Theatre February 10th-16th, and will open February 24th at the SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. Please check the following websites for showtimes and details:

Seattle Cinerama (opens 2/10)

SIFF Cinema at the Uptown (opens 2/24)

Hera help us…

10 Aug

So I read Ismene Brown’s article at The Arts Desk that discusses what is to be done with dances after a dancemaker dies, a topic that is relevant now more than ever with the passing of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch last year.  It’s also a topic that for no logical reason has been the cause of me losing sleep for the past week and Brown’s article has clarified some things in my mind so the timing’s right to write.  Now or never, go big or go home.

I have to start by saying I have no idea what either company should do.  I liken it to ancient civilizations like Greece and Egypt…all great things must come to an end.  However, even though modern studies of such civilizations are a conglomeration of facts and theories, the important thing is how they continue to fascinate people.  Authenticity isn’t necessarily important; in fact, the mystery adds a certain allure that continually fuels the study of them.  I want to believe Cunningham understood this, which is why he was at peace with having his company come to an end.  He knew the art is grounded in the ephemeral and that his dances are lived.  It’s like treating each dance itself as a living being; a spirit that is born when an audience sees dancers moving on a stage.  In this sense, I find dance quite religious—it is entirely dependant on living people.  Just as people live and die, so does dance and while it saddens me to think that dances are always being lost I almost take comfort in the fact that it is.  I remember reading about some nutty choreographer that wants all documentation of his dances burned and destroyed after he dies (which I find silly and a little stupid) and while that is much too extreme there’s something to be said for being able to easily separate ourselves from dance and inevitably this world.

I should actually hit the ball out of the park and just say dance IS religious.  Choreographers, performers and the “living dance spirit thingies” become our gods and goddesses, with each of us having our own wonderfully unique pantheon (a prize for anyone who can name five of mine.  To the victor go the spoils!).  In addition to worship of our idols there is disciplined practice of the art in the studios.  These are reasons why filmed performances are so critical; while we can never truly capture the magic of a live performance, dances on DVD and yes, even on something as mundane as YouTube allow for audiences to form a relationship with a particular piece by repeatedly seeing them.  Most of the time, you can’t truly fall in love with someone just by meeting them once and it’s the same with dances.  Even if there is an initial lust, ideally a dance is revisited to understand it more each time.  It really is just like filming people—like watching a video of a birthday party when you were five or something embarrassingly horrifying from high school.  You watch not to recreate the moment but to remind yourself of it and feel that connection with the people in the video or in the case of dance, a particular deity.  Video makes dance ever so slightly more tangible but not concrete.

It’s easier for ballet, which to me is like an ancient civilization with artifacts, monuments, etc. and to be more precise, an ancient civilization with written word, which makes the interpretation of its relics and educated conjecture possible.  It has a structure and systematic order for teaching newer generations.  Meanwhile, I liken modern dance to smaller, native tribes with oral traditions.  Oral tradition makes the passing of stories through generations a bit more precarious but it allows for change and more importantly, imagination.  I think Bausch and Cunningham’s dances have made their mark in history and have good documentation with many performances readily available on film and while that may not be enough to easily restage a certain piece, I’m less troubled by either choreographer’s dances being “lost” because audiences of these dances have to rely on memories of what the dance was like, filling in the blanks with their imaginations and thus nurturing creativity.  I myself went to see the Cunningham Company’s Legacy tour (link for my review), and while I can’t remember exact movements to exact music like I can in ballet, I can vividly remember the style, the colors and effects and imagine for myself what the choreography looked like.  Thus, while it doesn’t have to be specific to a certain genre of dance, I often see classical ballets as immortalized and modern dances as reincarnated.

In terms of preserving modern works I hate to oversimplify and say that modern dance companies should just “try and see how it goes” but that’s often the foundation of the work that goes on in studios so I don’t necessarily see a problem with that approach.  I tend to believe that things that will have a profound influence on history will find its own way to achieve that so while I’m saddened by the idea of certain modern repertory “passing on,” I don’t believe Cunningham or Bausch’s influence will just vanish off the face of the Earth.  I just hate how the whole idea of dance conservation and guardianship is muddled by copyright laws and crap.  It’s counterproductive because the sense of freedom that should come with being an artist is so heavily monitored…but I digress.  It’s hard for me to complain rationally about something I really don’t understand.

At any rate, I have to disagree with Brown who concludes that nobody will want to support an art that “abstains from saving itself.”  For some of those dances, preservation would end up being like those people who obsessively get cosmetic surgery in order to “maintain” their “youth” (end result? Not pretty).  I often find modern choreographers to be quite grassroots in that they build in small communities and eventually those with voices big enough will be heard.  Maybe I’m sickeningly optimistic, but I think it’s just a matter of time.  After all, gods and goddesses aren’t so easily replaced.

Eureka! Jinx…

21 May

Thanks to the Seattle Public Library, I’ve been watching Choreography by Balanchine (vol.1), which features full recordings of several Balanchine ballets.  Of course I was more interested in the “leaning-towards-classical-neoclassical” dances on the DVD, including Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (pas de DUH—it’s my favorite!), Chaconne and Ballo della Regina. I was thinking about writing a comparison/contrast(ison) between Chaconne and Ballo della Regina, because they have a lot in common.  They both use opera music, premiered around the same time and I think the style is pretty consistent between the two, BUT I didn’t really enjoy Ballo as much as I thought I would.  It’s crazy fast with ridiculously…no, HEINOUSLY hard footwork but there was something missing.  The dynamics of the piece didn’t sit well with me for some reason and I was stuck feeling like the ballet was going nowhere.  Maybe I need more time to absorb it…or maybe, it’s just not that good.  Besides, Chaconne is more relevant right now anyway since NYCB will perform it over the next few weeks and not a Ballo in sight.

At any rate, I adore Chaconne.  First of all, it’s set to music from Cristoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, based on the popular Greek myth of Orpheus, who went into the Underworld to retrieve his wife (Euridice) and the deal was that she would follow him but he was forbidden to turn around to see her.  When he did (because heterosexual men often have questionable judgment) he lost her forever.  I’m going to geek out for just a moment here and inform you that the ubiquitous “Can-Can” music I’m sure you’ve heard in movies or cartoons is from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, Orpheus in the Underworld, which is actually a comedy that takes some jabs at Gluck’s version.  I often find that the concept of “six degrees of separation” is often halved when it comes to the arts…so even if you knew nothing of either opera, Orpheus or Chaconne, you’re still connected to the piece in some way, which is by far much more fascinating than discerning how close you are to Kevin Bacon.

As a flute player, I know Orfeo ed Euridice extremely well. Trust me when I say ALL flute players know it because we’re synonymous with a section of it better known as Dance of the Blessed Spirits (which is specifically what Balanchine uses in the ballet).  We’ve all played the solo at one point or another and it’s the type of piece that for lack of a better phrase, “makes you feel pretty” and I assume similar emotions are invoked choreographers and dancers alike.  When Pina Bausch staged her own Orfeo ed Euridice, even she created this ghostly, romantic ballet to the music which is far from what she’s known for and I find it interesting that her danced opera debuted in 1975 while Chaconne debuted in 1976.  Bausch and Balanchine employed vastly differing interpretations of the ethereal, with Bausch’s using more gestures and organic movement while Balanchine opted for subtlety, having the dancers drifting in and out of each other, creating an effect like clouds rolling in the sky.  The costumes are somewhat similar in style and color which I find fascinating because it’s improbable that the choreographers/costume designers were aware of the other’s work, especially when the dances premiered within a year of each other.  I have to say though, that I found Bausch’s choreography to be much more embracing, as if the dance was loving me and not the other way around.  See for yourself:

Balanchine’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Bausch’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Chaconne begins with a pas de deux followed by the ensemble dance from above, which I found unusual because the women have their hair down, wear plain costumes and the style of the dance is soft and lyrical.  When the dancers reenter the stage, they all have their hair tied up in typical buns and have quick-changed into costumes that have a hint of opulence.  I find it odd that Balanchine would go from casual intimacy to a regal, courtly dance but the contrast certainly provides space for the dance to explore the in betweens (perhaps what I felt was lacking in Ballo della Regina).  However, one thing that stood out to me in the pas de deux was a move, a partnered move where the man and woman link arms and the woman has one foot on point, leaning away from it in a sort of faux-arabesque.  The reason why it stood out was because I had seen it before—it’s one of the iconic moves in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, from the bedroom pas de deux.  Now Manon premiered in 1974 (two years before Chaconne) and while Balanchine and MacMillan couldn’t be any more different on the ballet spectrum, they arrived at creating the same movement, at almost the same time.  It gives new meaning to the words “great minds think alike,” although there’s a chance that any pair of five-year-olds on a playground could “invent” this movement as well.  It does bring into question though, if there is ever a limit to choreography; at some point dance will (if it hasn’t already) plateau in terms of movement vocabulary and while new dances can always be created the search for new steps becomes futile.  I think that’s what sometimes bothers me about newer dances; it seems like everyone is pushing for new and innovative, but there’s not as much effort to incorporate historic styles.  That’s a topic for another decade though…

Note: The more freakish your feet are, the easier this move is. Carlos Acosta/Tamara Rojo on the left, Peter Martins/Suzanne Farrell on the right.

When Chaconne transitions into its more formal setting, the choreography immediately becomes quicker and crisper.  In the film version, the principal roles are danced by Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, both of whom deserve more exposure than YouTube allows.  What I love about Farrell’s dancing, whether it’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux or Chaconne is the way she uses her feet—she’s like a sewing machine, pinpointing her placement on the floor in dainty little stitches.  Martins on the other hand, with his Bournonville training from the Royal Danish Ballet, has exceptional beats in a myriad of little jumps (and you know Balanchine liked to put in some brisé volé!).  They are of course quintessential Balanchine and it’s difficult to imagine say, Russian ballerinas being able to keep up with the pace since their training encourages lingering to indulge movements.  The wonderful thing about Farrell and Martins is that they were trained to “go up” and “come down,” so they can come down from relevé or find fifth efficiently and without making the subsequent movement look forced.

So here’s an excerpt from the faster section of Chaconne…unfortunately I can’t post the whole thing because I’ll get in trouble, but hopefully these excerpts will give a decent idea of what the ballet is like.  I wish I was in New York to see it…but I have to say writing about it has been rather therapeutic.  I almost feel like a part of the action and I can pretend like that’s enough for a little while.

Farewell Pina Bausch

2 Jul

On June 30th, yet another influential figure in dance, Pina Bausch died.  And apparently she was only diagnosed just five days before she passed, and I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been for her and those close to her.  A cancer diagnosis is pretty devastating by itself, but to pass away in just five days is almost not enough time to come to terms with it or get that added “benefit” of saying goodbye to your loved ones in the interim.  It’s unfair really…and she was such a remarkable woman with a unique perspective on movement.  Many of her dances actually scared me even…as I’m kind of a shallow, happy-go-lucky, doesn’t take anything seriously kind of person.  Her works were so intense and visceral (hello, Le Sacre du Printemps!), they elicited emotions in me that I don’t experience regularly.  I’m just not that complex, and I think her understanding of the world was something else for sure.  But as far as the Rite of Spring is concerned, she defos did Stravinsky proud…I’m not even sure Nijinsky or Bejart (as striking and controversial as their choreography was), captured the magnitude or weight of that music the way she did. 

I actually knew of her from taking a class, and we watched a few things including Café Müller and Kontakt-hof.  Even though the natural tendencies of my brain are unfortunately lacking in an ability to appreciate the avant garde to the fullest, I find it amazing and important that she was able to create dances that made me feel things other than romance and jubilation which I get from watching ballet.  In a way, I think the most profound effect she had on me was to teach me to feel a fuller spectrum of emotions as a dance audience member, and to not simply gravitate towards what I naturally favor all the time.  Being an unbalanced human being in any direction is never really a good thing.

There’s obviously nothing funny I can say about Pina’s passing, but I do want to thank her for her creativity and recognize her influence in the world of dance.  May she rest in peace.

I tried to wear all black to ballet class today to kind of honor her in my own way, but as you know I no longer have black shoes and the white shoes made me look like I was out of my mind.  Although, for you comic book geeks, all black with white shoes was totally a look the Black Cat of Spiderman fame was rocking, so I can’t be too ashamed if I’m channeling a little Felicia Hardy (I didn’t inherit her power to bring about bad luck though…as evidenced by the fact that I found five 4-leaf clovers at the park the other day.  True story!).

And my apologies for ending this entry so abruptly and awkwardly.  I had a few more words I wanted to say about Pina Bausch, but the writing of this entry was interrupted by the invasion of a house centipede, which give me the SUPER heebie jeebies…I seriously can’t sleep if I see one in the house, and although I try to set bugs free outside, house centipedes have blinding speed rendering them vastly unpredictable, so an assassination was carried out.  Target eliminated, but the cost was my train of thought.  Sorry!