A Bauschian experience in Berlin

Recently Roslyn Sulcas had a feature in The New York Times about the works of Pina Bausch that are being brought to London to coincide with the 2012 Olympic Games. The London program, called World Cities 2012—it opened on 6 June, celebrates the residencies Bausch and her company undertook in the last several years of Bausch’s life. The full program will show ten of the works Bausch made as a result of those residencies.

Sulcas interviewed a number of people for her feature, including the theatre director Peter Sellars. Sellars noted the following characteristic of Bausch’s choreographic process:

What is so extraordinary about Pina’s work is that she doesn’t start from the architectonics of movement; it starts from the autobiography of the dancers.  

The statement immediately reminded me of the Australian video documentary The Black Swan directed by Michelle Mahrer in 1995 about Meryl Tankard’s career, including her career as a dancer with Pina Bausch. The video contains archival footage from Walzer (1982) and shows a scene in which Tankard’s character outlines for the benefit of the audience various survival methods that might be pursued should one find oneself alone in the desert. Tankard’s movements are dynamic and her voice animated. She wears an alluring yellow and black striped dress in keeping with the elegance of the other dancers who, oblivious to Tankard, mingle with each other and eat supper from a long table. The scene has the glamour of a society party, which makes Tankard’s discussion of desert survival appear startlingly out of context.

When Tankard gives her explanation of how to get by in the desert she is drawing on her recollections of early trips she and her family made between Darwin, where she was born, and Melbourne, where the family would later settle for several years. She explains to the audience how the wearing of underpants on the head is a great way to keep flies at bay. On the spot she removes her own underpants and demonstrates how to wear this item of apparel on the head in the most effective manner, all the while maintaining her enthusiastic telling of the story and her exhortations and advice to the audience.

Tankard’s mother, when questioned later by Tankard, explained the rationale behind this action of wearing underpants on the head. She recalled that on one of the trips back to Darwin—and the family made the long trip between Darwin and Melbourne and back several times while living in Darwin—the flies had been so bad at one breakfast stop that she had had the idea of covering the children’s faces with underpants, newly-bought in Melbourne and made from fabric that ‘breathed’ as a result of the tiny holes that were part of the composition of the fabric.

Sellars’ remark clearly fits well in the case of Tankard and Walzer. And Tankard of course would go onto use a similar technique and draw on many memories from her childhood and young adulthood when making her own works in Australia.

But a recent experience suggested to me that there is another powerful element in Bausch’s work that is perhaps stronger than those autobiographical elements, as important as they are. I was standing on a busy street corner near Eberswalder Strasse station in East Berlin. It’s a vibrant area in the city—full of students and other, colourful characters. A woman was crossing towards my corner on the green light and as she approached the kerb it was apparent that she was shouting something. In between exhortations she was taking bites from a huge, round, flat loaf of bread—and I mean huge. It was larger than a standard-sized pizza base and thicker. She wore track pants and a parka and a woollen cap. A line of cyclists in a bike lane, who were stationary waiting for a green light to move forward, studiously avoided taking any notice of the woman, although she was clearly an eccentric character in a regular, busy street scene and was passing right in front of them. They were dressed for bike riding so were not all that dissimilar in dress from the woman who was the central attraction.

The scene could have come straight out of a Bausch work. The woman was as vibrant in her exhortations as any of the best of Bausch’s dancers. The incongruity of her activity involving the bread recalled the apparent non-sequiturs that often feature in a Bausch work and reminded me of, say, the scene in Palermo, Palermo where one of the dancers cooks slices of some kind of sausage on the hot-plate of an iron. The bike riders got on with their business just as those dancers in Walzer did, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in front of them. 

I began to think about how the major feature of Bausch’s works is not so much that she drew on the autobiographical stories of her dancers, but that she manipulated those stories and set them into a context. She was able to seduce the audience not because the stories were autobiographical but because through them she allowed art to imitate life.

© Michelle Potter, 9 June 2012

Postscript, 1 July 2012: Here is a link to a podcast made by The Financial Times in relation to the World Cities 2012 program. It features dance critic Clement Crisp and Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells. (Update August 2020: 2012 link no longer available)

2 thoughts on “A Bauschian experience in Berlin

  1. A very interesting idea to ponder Michelle. I have had scant exposure to Bausch work [Adelaide/Melbourne performances a long time ago, and latterly fleeting YouTube and DVD viewings] but am still mystified as to how she managed to affect my emotions so powerfully. I came to a tentative conclusion for my experiences : she recognised that underneath our adult personas, fashioned variously to cope with the world,there was a frightened, insecure child, always very close to the surface. She was able to peel back the layers during performances till the emotionally vulnerable child was exposed. The seemingly random, repetitive onstage behaviour seems to me now, as I grow older, to be like the irruptions into our everyday consciousness of trivial events from long ago that replay themselves in our mind while we go about our daily activity. Your use of the word “seduce” to describe how she achieves her aims is very apt too. I can’t get to the bottom of why I found her male performers so attractive – something to do with the way they seemed to embody a male/female duality. I never really took to Meryl Tankard’s application of various Bauschian techniques. Her Australian pisstake attitude seemed to undermine the possibility of going very deeply into the sort of areas Bausch did. Perhaps I am just a sucker for that gloomy, Romantic, faded glamour aspect of Bausch’s work. Certainly wandering around Europe in the dead of Winter, which is when I usually made my trips in the 80’s and 90’s, made me feel very much like a character in one of her works !

  2. Well I was also interested to note that Roslyn Sulcas mentioned the fact that Bausch had ‘lightened up’ a little in her later works. I don’t think she used those exact words but I do think that was her meaning and I think she is absolutely right on this one. It seems to me that Tankard frequently used that kind of ‘lightness’ (and I don’t mean it in a derogatory sense) in her Australian works. I am scarcely able to express how lucky I was to be in Canberra when Tankard had her first company here. I think her best works were made in Canberra when she had so many limitations, largely financial, on her capacity to create. But so often from limitations astonishing results emerge. Some of her Canberra works, while not of the European Romantic tradition, were highly complex in meaning and often, in my opinion, that complexity got lost when she did have a larger budget and had to live up to the higher expectations that went with such things.

    But going back to your assessment of Bausch’s impact, you also present interesting ideas upon which to ponder. The idea of elemental emotions being exposed in performance is one. I think that what we subliminally know is under the surface is there in spades in every Bausch work. That is what is so interesting and so moving. What Bausch expected of her dancers in the rehearsal process gives many clues to what we get onstage. Meryl is very good at talking about that aspect of the work. She talks often of having to repeat things in rehearsal and of the feelings that such a process engendered. If the feelings of dancer are exposed, and if the dancer is good enough, then our feelings are exposed too. This, in my opinion, is what we so rarely get from ballet dancers. Only the greatest give us that. But then perhaps Bausch is one of the greatest.

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