Jane and Kimberly go beyond the powerful empathy aroused by the achingly beautiful, emotionally driven dance performances of Pina Bausch to talk about the significance of narrative meaning. (Pina, a musical documentary written and directed by Wim Wenders, 2011, Netflix)
JAS: When most people think of modern dance, they probably think of Martha Graham, maybe Isadora Duncan, or Josephine Baker. In this Double-Mirror issue on creativity, we highlighted the great Twyla Tharp, a well-known modern dancer and choreographer. Pina Bausch may not be a household name but she holds the distinction of staging groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, dreamlike sprints and sagas of intensely emotional dance performances to sold-out audiences in her own time and now, even without her presence. Though she died in 2009, the film perpetuates her genius. Even Pedro Almodovar foretold the core metaphor of his film Talk To Her, with two men tearfully watching a performance of Pina’s famous “Café Mueller.” In the documentary Pina, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Wim Wenders captures Pina’s quietly charismatic personality as well as the power of her dances as performed by her troupe of Wuppertal dancers. Watching on a screen is, no doubt, no comparison to being there in person. Pina’s dances are meant to be immersive experiences, always beautiful, always emotionally charged, often strenuous, physically convulsive, and even violent. As captivated as I was by their empathic impact and awe-inspiring sensuality, I couldn’t ignore the dark implications of her narratives for women. Like Almodovar’s film, the dances raise issues about female entrapment in patriarchy, human free will, and beauty being existentially encased in the menacing.
KC: Pina, who I love, introduced me to the concept of using my body and dance to process my deepest emotional stories. She had a process for infusing her work with emotions that she also used to evoke performances from her dancers. It involved improvisation and the memory of the dancer’s own experiences. She would ask questions to provoke memories and from the answers, develop gestures, dialogues, and scenes. I always loved this concept and use it myself. Her creative process made me realize that movement could be a way to work through some of life’s more painful experiences. For Pina that often meant relationships between men and women.
JAS: Men are primarily seen struggling against powerful forces of nature and at a loss when it comes to women and feelings. I was particularly taken with Pina’s genius for lifting the plight of desperate women onto the higher level of tragedy, not simply portraying them as victims. We’re used to having our hearts saddened by the plights of men caught in tragic plots – think Shakespeare or movies like Raging Bull or Death of a Salesman. Pina creates riveting dance pieces that bring out the sadness, anger, and despair of women, feelings that were historically unspoken and repressed by women themselves. Men are seen failing women. Women appear desperate for a man to receive them as they come of age and face one rejection after another. A red cloth representing menstrual blood is hidden, not welcomed by men as prescient of life to come but as something to turn away from. I think we can all relate. Pina adds the element of tragedy, the tremendous sense of loss of something that could’ve been, something that should be but isn’t, something that leaves people feeling deeply immersed in the dark side of life. Her breakthrough dramatizations bring hidden feelings to consciousness and set the stage for healing.
KC: You talk about how most of her narratives are tragic, sad or blue or bad, of how they are cloaked in the masochistic side of living within patriarchy. But Pina brought these narratives into the realm of modern dance, even spearheading a style called Tanztheater. This was important in her time because as a woman, she was using non-verbal intimacy between her and her audiences to express these darker sides of human relations. Using the body to speak its existential truths in an era where the voice hadn’t learned how to yet.
JAS: Which is incredible for sure but I don’t want to miss the bleak prospects of what is being seen. As beautiful and emotional as the dances are, I want to go further. I didn’t see a window out of women’s plight in her pieces. Women ran full force into walls and were left fallen spread out in grotesque poses. They were caught in repetitive, never ending cycles of reaching for an embrace by men who repeatedly dropped them. One woman was tethered to a rope that gave her only so much slack and yanked her time and time again into a dead end. They were never seen cutting the rope, having the strength to hold on or taking matters into their own hands. Tragedy with no transformation.
KC: Tragedy with no transformation is a good way to put it. Pina’s women are like rag dolls waiting to be pummeled by whatever wind they are currently walking within, thrown and tossed by life’s tumultuous waves and forever trudging through the mire without finding personal redemption. It makes me think more about the way our bodies mirror our psychological states. But whereas I love Pina for having had the courage to choreograph the more shadowy sides of human relations and female existence in her time, you seem to be saying “where’s the light at the end of the tunnel?” – because as you mention, we are on the lookout for the full arcs of women’s lives that go further than the tragedy to also provide the transformation. I think seeing the tragic symbolism of Pina’s art is important to transformations that have led to change in women’s lives and their art.
JAS: That may be exactly the point…When we talk about Twyla, we see someone who is instrumental in getting to a larger context for art that encompasses emotional arousal and intellectual understanding, freeing our relationship to repetitive cycles of nature (for instance) to let us in as individuals. Twyla approaches habit and repetition creatively, putting them through a feminine lens that values their contribution. Rather interesting, actually. For a woman who experiences the full range of birth to death in her own body, rituals become enlivening, not deadening.
KC: They each have a unique expression. Pina’s is processing darkness more than light, which is equally valid since we are talking about the integration of female experience as something worthy of sharing and she brings in her narrow lens.
JAS: – Yes, her contribution is about making even the darkest emotions valid. She wasn’t a lone dancer. She created a company of dancers, took her new form of emotional dancing to the stage and gained international attention and acclaim. Not leaving her stuck in her time without a vision of transformation is what we’re talking about.
KC – Yes, her dances laid a foundation for peeking into the shadows of women and bringing them to the spotlight. What she did for her time was incredible and indeed, at that moment, new for her peers. She was like a piece of abstract artwork.
JAS – I like putting her in context of other modern art. I’m looking for the larger idea, one affected by putting compassion and perspective together – asking about what art has to say, what thoughts are provoked by it as well as how we feel. I think you are interested not only in how you felt watching Pina but also how you were changed.
KC: She’s certainly paved the way for the dance I am doing now, working through memory, processing what I call frozen cellular pain. I don’t know how much of her narratives were her own or just archetypal of the time but they did represent a certain woman in a certain place.
JAS: What I like about what we – as in ‘you and me’ – are doing is starting in one moment of excited enthusiasm and ending up with a more complete response, a vision aimed at encompassing emotion and meaning that’s moving toward something new. By the way, that’s an old idea with new meaning for new times. A famous saying by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard goes like this. “If everyone is a Lutheran, then no one is a Lutheran,” meaning if your convictions are not subject to scrutiny, you have no chance to develop a genuine belief. By Pina Bausch getting women’s darkest emotions seen, she anticipates Ruth Bader Ginsburg trying to explain women’s rights to a male-dominated Supreme Court – “it was like teaching elementary school kids something they knew nothing about”. Perhaps we can think of Pina betting on audiences being curious about something seriously beautiful that they knew nothing about.
KN: Right, and although the infusion of her tragedies into an international spotlight helped flush out the experiences of being a woman, I like to hope that its particular contribution to the dance lexicon becomes a time capsule of early progress and evolution toward a more rounded out story of the female experience today.