Wednesday, July 08, 2009

pina dreaming

Once, when I was a teenager, immersed in acting lessons and still unable to give up ballet, despite an upper body that had filled out and a patrician second toe that made pointe work impossible, I went to see Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theatre. I still remember the piece I saw: there were leaves and dirt on the floor that the performers slid on and smeared each other with. At one point there was a kind of cakewalk in which the dancers followed each other single file while making a beautiful repetitive arm and hand gesture that spoke to my childish heart. The music of that little cakewalk I still remember, all these years later. It is a complete unit of melody which, like the dance, repeats itself over and over. I don't know why my brain has held on to it, but it has.

In the week or so since Pina Bausch died, that melody has been haunting me. I have plunged into a sea of youtube, dailymotion and other video sites, trying to determine what must have been the piece that I saw. The leaves and dirt point to Rite of Spring, the early monumental work that took on Stravinsky with a kind of existential, almost reluctant spirituality, thwarted by a downward spiral of human emotion. The dates for that project (mid-70s) jive as well. I watched segments from it with amazement and new appreciation, but the gorgeous Stravinsky was wrong for the work I saw. The music I remember is extremely playful. Like the music of a jewel box, it is a tune a child could pick up and hum for days. And I remember it being a briefer work - a short piece.

As I continued my search, I was reminded of Pina Bausch's exclusive and devoted relationship to the classical choral music repertoire. In an era when her North American spiritual cousin Twyla Tharp was criss-crossing the landscape of western musical tradition with her works, Bausch stayed remarkably loyal to the classical choral forms. Her passion for Gluck allowed for her beautifully layered Orphee et Eurydice (pictured above). Though in later years she experimented with African and Asian themes and rhythm, she was most at home with the European canon, both classical and contemporary, and leaning toward opera in new and revitalized ballet interpretations of such legendary works as Bartok's Bluebeard.

Since I was not often able to see her work live, the video journey has led to yearnings and regrets for missed opportunities. Of these, Cafe Muller sticks out, and watching her lifelong collaborator, the amazing Dominique Mercy in Ein Trauerspiel, set to one of my favourite piano works by Schubert (the piano trio in E flat). Kontakthof with its somewhat oversimplified message of sexism is still a raw, powerful piece and I would be curious about its echos in memory for me of a youthful feminist zeal. But if I could snap my fingers and see anything in the next minute, it would undoubtedly be Vollmond, the very recent work which is an extraordinary celebration and lamentation in water. It would have been not only affecting, but hugely impressionable to me. Watch a trailer from youtube and you'll see what I mean.

I still haven't figured out what was the work I saw back in my teens. But my journey also took me to one of my favorite films, and one of my earliest encounters with international cinema, Fellini's E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On). In that movie, Bausch plays a blind princess on a 19th century ocean voyage with other nobility. In the scene I remember, she recounts the colours produced by the sounds of people's voices. It's one of the few times we the world heard the actual voice of Pina Bausch in a performance context. Watch her and note how her lovely character, at first glance the most colourless and dowdiest person at the table, becomes by the end of the scene the most transcendently compelling.

Her face then, and especially in recent years, looked a bit like Virginia Woolf, another hero of mine. There is the same intelligent brow and slightly sunken cheeks, smallish eyes that somehow still dance with liveliness. The face is expressive, like Martha Graham's. It causes me to imagine how the face would have leant itself to the body when she performed her own works. In that regard, perhaps nothing is more iconically vivid as a farewell image of Pina Bausch than the white-draped sylphanic and diaphonous black and white scenes from Cafe Muller. In them, she is almost a dream incarnation of herself, even while rooted in the rough and tumble hard-edged and very earthbound choreography of the men who fight and fall around her in the cafe. That footage is available in many places online, but watch it here in this French tv version where the quality is best. It starts at minute 2:27 but the documenary profile, if you understand french, is a good setup. We are so lucky that we have that sequence to watch so that we can always remember this goddess of the underground as the moving spirit that she was, rooted in earth and leaves but equally and eternally buoyant.
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knl said...

I love this piece. btw: I saw And the Ship Sails on With You. At the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills. Paul Newman and Joanne Woddward sat a few rows in front of us.

Sherry Coman said...

Kara, it's a couple of years later that I'm responding to your comment - but thanks, and I do remember that!