Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Anzac Day 2020. Aotearoa New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

This year, for the first time in over 100 years, all public gatherings to mark Anzac Day were cancelled, due to the lockdown imposed as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic: an enemy if ever there was one, not war between nations this time but a hope that all countries might join a common fight.

Traditionally Anzac Day commemorations shape up as a kind of countrywide choreography, starting with a Dawn Parade in every city, town, village or marae—a bugle, a salute, a karakia, a march, a haka, a hymn, a prayer, a poem—‘They shall grow not old’—a minute’s silence and The Last Post

There are church services, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, gatherings and wakes throughout the day to remember sacrifice—the war dead and wounded, refugees and fugitives, and the whole sad sorry waste of it all. It is a statutory public holiday, restaurants, shops, schools and theatres are closed, normal life is on hold for a day, then it’s back to busy business. But ‘normal life’ has been on hold these many weeks now. So how was this Anzac Day different from other years?

Some today stood alone at the roadside in front of their home, before dawn at 6am, holding a candle perhaps, and a transistor radio to hear the national broadcast, or watched television coverage of the Prime Minister standing at her gate. Many families had made sculptures or graphics of poppies to display in their gardens. Some of the 1000s of teddy bears in house windows to cheer passersby these past weeks were today wearing poppies too. Many of us will have been mindful of the shocking statistic that in two months of the 1918 influenza pandemic more New Zealanders died than had been killed during the whole of World War I.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the commercialisation of Christmas and to a degree Easter, surrounded as we are by tsunamis of merchandise ‘to show we care’. Today was differently focused. Some folk had developed their own ideas and found resources to express an experience, share a thought, address a concern, tell a story, to give a voice to hope. Isn’t that what art does? Mere entertainment has to me never seemed sufficient, either in peace or wartime.

Numerous dance companies worldwide, stymied by the current pandemic and obliged to cancel many performances and productions, have in past weeks moved to make selected works from their repertoire available online. The Royal New Zealand Ballet have already screened video of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, Liam Scarlett’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella. For today their program from 2015, Salute, was aired, comprising  two works—Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele. My review of the Company’s season in 2015 is at this link.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Dear Horizon', 2015. Photo: Ellie Richards
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Dear Horizon, 2015. Photo: © Ellie Richards

What a pity this broadcast could not have included Jiri Kylian’s masterwork, Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu, from the same program—(prohibitive fees or copyright issues perhaps?) since it was a work that suited the Company’s dancers of that time to the drumbeat of their hearts and ours. Laura Saxon Jones, sole female performing alongside all the male dancers of the Company, will never be forgotten.    

Other outstanding choreographies  with a war, or anti-war theme, include Jose Limon’s noble Missa Brevis, dedicated to the spirit of Polish resistance; Young Men, Ivan Perez’ choreography startlingly performed by Ballet Boyz; and of course the legendary work Der grüne Tisch/The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, a work I used to dream might one day be performed by RNZB, so well it would have suited them until just a few years ago. I remain grateful to have seen the Joffrey Ballet’s  authoritative performances however, and another unforgettable production in which the late Pina Bausch played The Old Woman—a performance of such chiselled beauty stays with one for life, as though she had stepped from a painting by Modigliani, or Munch, or a figure from the mediaeval Danse Macabre of Lübeck Cathedral.   

(I’m often reminded of the very fine study by William McNeill, Harvard historian, who in his book Keeping Together in Time, considers how coordinated rhythmic movement, and the shared feelings it evokes, has been a powerful force in holding human groups together—how armies of the world, train and march and move—be that in quick, slow, double or dead march, the goose step, the North Koreans’ grand battement smash, or the soldiers’ antics at the Pakistan-Indian border).

***********************

Both RNZB works, Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Ieremia’s Passchendaele, retain all the impact and power of their first staging, with the New Zealand Army Band playing to precise perfection, for the former the music of Gareth Farr, for the latter the composition by Dwayne Bloomfield. The contained emotion of the music, particularly in cello and brass solos, stops time.   

Ieremia’s early career, as for so many of the dancers who worked with Douglas Wright, absorbed much influence from the driven and airborne choreography  of that master dance-maker. An indelible image that remains with me is from Wright’s The Kiss Inside—a scene in which a gorilla-suited figure passes a tray of cut oranges around a group of boys (a team of rugby players, refreshments at half time?). Soon, just a little older, the same young men are in a faraway other place, a different game, writhing on the ground, in an agony of wounds, bleating like sheep. The gorilla passes a microphone among them to record their messages for relaying home. The bleating becomes recognisable as a cry of pathos, ‘Mummy, Mummy’ from one dying soldier after another. Says it all really.  

Jennifer Shennan, 25 April 2020

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Bennelong.' Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

Dance diary. December 2017

  • ‘The best of…’ for 2017

At this time of the year ‘the best of…’ fills our newspapers and magazines. My top picks for what dance audiences were able to see in the ACT over the year were published in The Canberra Times on 27 December. A link is below in ‘Press for December 2017.’ Dance Australia will publish its annual critics’ survey in the February issue. In that survey I was able to look more widely at dance I had seen across Australia.

In addition, I was lucky enough to see some dance in London and Paris. Having spent a large chunk of research time (some years ago now) examining the Merce Cunningham repertoire, especially from the time when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were designing for the company, for me it was a highlight of 2017 to see Cunningham’s Walkaround Time performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. And in London I had my first view of Wayne McGregor’s remarkable Woolf Works.

Eric Underwood and Sarah :amb in 'woolf Works', Act II. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © ROH/Tristam Kenton

Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb in Woolf Works, Act II. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © 2015 ROH/Tristam Kenton

In Australia in 2017 the absolute standout for me was Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong and that particular work features, in one way or another, in both my Canberra Times and Dance Australia selections. Of visitors to Australia, nothing could come near the Royal Ballet in McGregor’s Woolf Works during the Royal’s visit to Brisbane. At the time I wrote a follow-up review.

  • Some statistics from this website for 2017

Here are the most-viewed posts for 2017, with a couple of surprises perhaps?

1. Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This was an early post dating back to 2009, the year I started this website. I can only imagine that Rite of Spring has been set as course work at an educational institution somewhere and this has resulted in such interest after close to 9 years?

2. Bryan Lawrence (1936–2017). Obituaries are always of interest to readers, but this one took off like wildfire.

Bryan Lawrence and Marilyn Jones in Giselle. Photo: Walter Stringer

Bryan Lawrence and Marilyn Jones in Giselle, Act I. The Australian Ballet, c. 1966. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

3. Ochres. Bangarra Dance Theatre. This review was posted in 2015 following the restaging of Stephen Page’s seminal work of 1994. It was powerful all those years ago and it is a thrill to see that audiences and readers still want to know about it.

4. New Zealand School of Dance 50th Anniversary Celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet. This is a relatively recent post so its position in the year’s top five indicates what a drama has been raging in New Zealand. Its comments are among the best I have had on this site.

5. RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet. It is only recently that I have had many opportunities to see Queensland Ballet. The company goes from strength to strength and its repertoire is so refreshing. I’m happy to see the 2017 program RAW, which included Liam Scarlett’s moving No Man’s Land, on the top five list.

The top five countries, in order, whose inhabitants logged on during 2017 (with leading cities in those countries in brackets) were Australia (Sydney), the United States (Boston), the United Kingdom (London), New Zealand (Wellington), and France (Paris).

  • Some activities for early 2018

In January the Royal Academy of Dance is holding a major conference in Brisbane, Unravelling repertoire. Histories, pedagogies and practices. I will be giving the keynote address and there are many interesting papers being given over the three days of the event. Details at this link.

Then, in February I will be giving the inaugural Russell Kerr Foundation lecture in Wellington, New Zealand, and will speak about the career of New Zealand-born designer Kristian Fredrikson. The event will take place on 11 February at 3 pm in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Music. The lecture will follow a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Loughlan Prior’s LARK, created for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 2017.

Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in LARK from whY Cromozone. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

  • Press for December 2017

‘History’s drama illuminated by dance.’ Review of dance in the ACT during 2017. The Canberra Times, 27 December 2017, p. 22. Online version

*****************************************

And a very happy and successful 2018 to all. May it be filled with dancing.

2017 weave, hustle and halt

weave, hustle and halt, Australian Dance Party, 2017. Photo: Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2017

Featured image: Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Bennelong.' Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Lobsters again, again. Borderline Arts Ensemble

4 November, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

What a lucky stroke that this little show Lobsters ran for a fortnight season at Circa Theatre (most dance seasons here span two or three days, some are even oncers). That gave us a chance to return for several repeat viewings, and there were fresh revelations on each occasion. A late-appearing review in the local daily, in the 2nd week of the season, was nonetheless unstinting in its praise, which of course lifted telephones all over town and eventually gave this intrepid little troupe the sold-out end to the season they deserved. Good…but never underestimate the power, and therefore the ethics, of the timing of a dance review. (Other early reviews had appeared but were more about the writer than the show).

I see more clearly now what has proved so satisfying about this brilliant little, crazy little work. I say ‘little’ because there’s a cast of five, musos included. The show lasts 75 mins, and the venue is intimate. The more miraculous that the dancing is full and generous, fast and slow and still, requiring total torso and limbs all the way through. The three dancers work to the very edges of the stage. You feel the draught as they race by. You can see every hip tilt, shoulder blade, neck curve and ankle stretch, every toe and finger tip (these are verbs not nouns) and there’s not a falter to be found. It’s high dance classicism in disguise, with a drizzle of cabaret jus and very naughty it is too. After numerous extraordinary encounters with surrealism, the girl and the guy eventually make it. That’s a lovely way to let us out into the evening air.

It seems to me that many choreographic ventures over the last five years, maybe more, have shown a trend of apologising as regards dance vocabulary—born, I suppose, of a desire to eschew existing conventions and to seek novelty. Effectively that results in a fractured, often arhythmic, set of hesitant gestures that question meaning and express doubt, offering relativity of position rather than allowing certainty or clarity, resolution, commitment. Such semaphore-like movement of arms and hands effectively asks questions but does not want answers. Don’t get me wrong. I ask questions all the time and many of them are rhetorical… as in ‘Do you love me?’ [not that I actually ask that one of course]. The price we pay for this contemporary post-modern sensibility and fix on innovation is the absence of line and vitality in dancing, and of synopsis or resolution in choreography.

It’s also frequent practice nowadays for a choreographer to give tasks to dancers in workshop fashion, to ‘ask them questions’, and take their resulting ‘answers’, shaping them this way and that into what is then identified as ‘choreography’. This was of course the choreographic practice of Pina Bausch. She was pure choreographic genius of theatre and her instincts caught life on the wing. Imitation of her, or any other art practice, will ever be only that, and worth not a lot, despite that we are surrounded by it, and very well funded it often is too. ‘Creativity in the moment of choreographic collaboration’ sounds like hogwash to me. I prefer Yeats, see below.

Dynamics of light and shade in the fully committed dancing body that is not fearful of itself seem like a rare treat nowadays. Douglas Wright always offered that in spades, but he doesn’t choreograph any more. Lobsters has caught it, thank goodness.

So an accolade please, to Lucy Marinkovich, for choreographing a stunning and super little show that scores top marks on every front. You can tell, come the curtain call, how much they have all enjoyed performing, but there’s no such distracting evidence allowed during the actual performance, with the intense concentration and stylized espression required of each. We laugh a lot but they don’t—until the curtain call.

The music is superbly imagined and delivered, with music and cabaret audiences as well catered for as they might wish. Lucien Johnson has extraordinary talents, including double blowing into his saxophone (Is that normal? Who cares? It works).

Carmel McGlone is Salvador Dali’s lobster, and he would have been struck dumb by her performance.

Lucy will want to share that accolade with dramaturg Miranda Manasiadis who most certainly knows what she is doing. Two years of shared thoughts and preparations between them is how you get a scenario like this. Frequently of late we see ‘dramaturg’ listed in the credits for a dance show but there’s often little evidence of drama in the result, and it really only means another fee for a member of the ‘creative team’. [RNZB’s The Wizard of Oz, and more recent Romeo & Juliet would be two cases in point. It was the beautiful dancers who delivered on those occasions, and we loved them for it, but drama in the production was little in evidence]. So if there’s to be any point in involving a dramaturg, there’s an art involved in a choreographer allowing space for that work.

By repeated viewings of a performance we get a chance to think some more about the lines by W.B Yeats (my favourite) quote:

‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

… in other words – how do the performance and choreography relate, intertwine? It can often be hard to tell. In RNZB’s recent Romeo & Juliet, the contrasting casts in the lead roles at different performances gave us a chance to see how. Mayu Tanigaito and Kohei Iwamoto at a matinee transformed the choreography from ‘very good’ by their performance into something ‘stratospheric’, but the critical record has been silent on that, and there is no photographic or videoed evidence of it, which some of us find sad, verging on very sad.

Leah McLean of Borderline Publicity is the best dance administrator I’ve encountered since the longest time. Lobsters really is a team effort and every one of them should take a bow, then pack their bags for the numerous festival invitations that are bound to come their way. Keep your eye on the hustings.

Jennifer Shennan, 5 November 2017

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Featured image: Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in Lobsters, 2017. Photo: © Philip Merry

Featured image:

Regina Advento in 'Masurca Fogo'. Tanztheater Wupertal Pina Bausch. Photo: Laszlo Szito

Masurca Fogo. Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

12 February 2017, Sadler’s Wells, London

It has been a while since I last saw Tanztheater Wuppertal live, so it was with some interest that I bought a ticket for Masurca Fogo (Fiery Mazurka). What struck me, pretty much instantly as the show began, was that there might be a lot of dancing in Masurca Fogo. And in fact there was. It seemed as though every one of the twenty dancers in the cast had a dancing solo, and every one of them performed strongly and skilfully. This, I felt, was a company of dancers, which isn’t always a conclusion one might draw when watching some other works by Bausch.

What was interesting, however, was the sameness that permeated the solos—lots of emphasis on fluid arms and upper body for example. I couldn’t help wondering what the inspiration for the choreography was. Did Bausch, since Masurca Fogo premiered in 1998 when Bausch was still well and truly alive, set tasks for the dancers (a regular part of her choreographic process) from which the movement evolved? Did it involve questions that required focus on the upper body? Whatever was the process involved, it generated, along with the excellent execution of the movement, some rather repetitive moments.

Other dancing moments included a scene where the whole cast crammed into a makeshift beach hut for a dancing party. I also enjoyed the lines of dancers snaking their way across the stage on a couple of occasions, even if this kind of line formation is not uncommon in works by Bausch.

Regina Advento and Pablo Aran Gimeno in 'Masurca Fogo'. Photo: Jochen Viehoff

Regina Advento and Pablo Aran Gimeno in Masurca Fogo. Photo: Jochen Viehoff

But of course Masurca Fogo also contained all those elements we have come to expect from a work by Bausch—personal stories recounted with all kinds of action, surprising happenings, non-sequiturs, water on stage, women in high heels, men in suits, cross-dressing, and so on. Then there were the animals—in Masurca Fogo we had a live chicken picking at pieces of water melon, and a walrus (not real) lumbering its way across the stage.

But what was the essence of the work? Made as a result of a research period in Portugal and presented at Expo 98 as the fifth work in the World Cities series, it was very ‘beachy’ in its approach. Swimsuits, sunshine and a summery feel were predominant, but love and desire were at the heart of it all. There were various sexual allusions throughout the piece, including in the closing moments when we saw footage of flowers unfolding as the dancers lay on the rocky hillside that made up the set. It reminded me of Georgia O’Keefe to tell the truth.

I prefer Bausch in her darker moods. She has more to say then that is worth contemplating. But it was good to see the dancers dancing.

Ensemble, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in 'Masurca Fogo'. Photo: Zerrin Aydin Herwegh

Ensemble, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Masurca Fogo. Photo: Zerrin Aydin Herwegh

Michelle Potter, 14 February 2017

Featured image: Regina Advento in Masurca Fogo. Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Photo: Laszlo Szito

Regina Advento in 'Masurca Fogo'. Tanztheater Wupertal Pina Bausch. Photo: Laszlo Szito

Inheriting dance. An invitation from Pina.

I have had an ongoing interest in archiving dance for almost three decades, fuelled in particular by curatorships at the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. They were three quite different experiences, especially in relation to the kinds of format on which dance is, or might be, recorded and how these formats are, or might be, preserved; and also in relation to the strength of focus on dance (or lack of it) I encountered at each of these institutions. The book Inheriting dance: an invitation from Pina, published by the Pina Bausch Foundation, was a chance to be reminded of the problems that face us if we want dance to be preserved for future generations. And of the pleasures encountered when positive steps are taken.

Pina Bausch died in 2009 and left a diverse range of materials in different formats as a legacy of her career. The chapter ‘Wild gardens. Archiving as translating’ lists them for us and the authors of this chapter (Gabriele Klein and Marc Wagenbach) remark:

Archiving was part of her choreographic process, an essential element of her work. It was an attempt to retain the momentary and the transient, to be able to remember, in order then to once again create an artistic present.

The Pina Bausch Foundation was set up shortly after Bausch’s death in order to carry on her heritage and find a way to archive her material so that it might remain a creative force in the future. Various archiving processes are discussed: the model of the so-called ‘static repository’; the ‘living archive’, that is one that is more open and collaborative; the idea of an archive being a ‘future workshop’; and other ideologies relating to interdisciplinary approaches and digitisation strategies.

The book gives some interesting examples of how the current Bausch archive has been used to bring certain Bausch works to the stage. I have to admit, however, to being most fascinated by a chapter by Royd Climenhaga relating to the reception of Bausch’s works in America. The juxtaposition he sets up between German and American dance traditions, and his discussion of efforts to incorporate Bausch’s vision into his own teaching and other experiences in America, make thought-provoking reading.

On the subject of archiving dance, my experience has been that most dance collections fall, for a whole variety of reasons, including financial and time-related ones, into the category of ‘static repositories’. But they certainly don’t have to be ‘arcane models of scholarship and institutionalized academic projects’, although personally I like using them for academic purposes, and feel lucky that I can. Not enough academically-inclined folk realise that dance is a worthwhile area of study. But static repositories can also be used as ‘living archives’. And here I am thinking of some performances created by Liz Lea, artistic director of Canberra Dance Theatre using cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional resources from Canberra’s collecting institutions including the National Library of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Gallery of Australia. Lea, I am sure, is not the only choreographer using dance resources from static repositories to create work, although I realise that this is a little different from recreating the work of a particular choreographer now no longer alive, as is the aim of the Pina Bausch Foundation.

Publicity shot for '120 Birds', 2011

Liz Lea in 120 Birds, a work drawing on resources from the National Library of Australia

I guess I am arguing for the role of all models of dance archives to be treasured and developed. In that context, this is a book worth reading by anyone who is interested in how dance will be perceived, created and recreated in the future, as it is, of course, for anyone interested in how one organisation is undertaking a particular project.

  • Marc Wagenbach and Pina Bausch Foundation (eds), Inheriting dance: an invitation from Pina  ([Transcript]: Bielenfeld, 2014). Paperback, 1992 pp., illustrated
    ISBN 978-3-8376-2785-5

This book is distributed in Australia and New Zealand by Footprint Books and is available through bookshops or direct from Footprint.

See also the website (still partially under construction I think) of the Pina Bausch Foundation at this link.

Michelle Potter, 22 March 2015

Featured image: Book cover, Inheriting dance. An invitation from Pina.

'Inheriting dance' cover image

Meryl Tankard: an original voice. Part two—Pina Bausch

On 30  November 2012 the content of this post was deleted.

Following requests from a number of readers for a copy of Meryl Tankard: an original voice, the book is now available in print form. The print edition includes the eight chapters originally posted on this website plus a preface, introduction, bibliography, index and an updated list of choreographic works. Ordering details are at this link.

The background to the book is, however, worth retaining:

In 2004 I began working on the manuscript of a book, Meryl Tankard: an original voice. In that year a book about Tankard was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as part of a series called Australian Lives. The commissioning letter said, in part, that the book should:

… present a life of Meryl Tankard along with an account of her career and achievements … provide insights into her way of working, her acknowledged successes, her less well-known career highlights and her private life … [cover] key personal and professional associations … explore why she has, from time to time, been embroiled in some difficulties and controversies.

For a variety of reasons the Library decided not to proceed with publication of the manuscript as a title in the Australian Lives series. A proposal was considered again in 2008 after I had added to and significantly enhanced the manuscript once I no longer needed to adhere to a limit of 25,000–30,000 words. Again the Library decided not to proceed, with the final decision being made on the grounds that the publication would not attract enough public interest for sales to cover costs. Eventually, in 2011, I found a publisher who thought publication was a viable proposition, but other circumstances relating to copyright and permissions meant that once again publication did not proceed.

However, a huge amount of research went into the manuscript. Some of it was conducted overseas and some of it foregrounded works by Tankard that have not been seen in Australia or that were one-off shows. Extensive research also went into putting together a list Tankard’s choreographic works from 1977 to 2009. In addition, many, many people generously shared thoughts and material with me. It seemed a cruel fate for this research not to see the light of day. So, I published the major part of it on this website. I am delighted that the book is now available in expanded form as a self-published print production.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2012

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)

Spring Dance 2011 (1). Pina: a celebration

Pina Bausch died quite suddenly in 2009. It was a shock to most in the dance world and was the occasion for an outpouring of recollections and writing of various kinds. Sydney’s Spring Dance program, now in its third year, made its contribution with almost its entire program devoted in some way or another to the legacy of Bausch. A major highlight was Pina: a celebration, two days of talks and films hosted by journalist and broadcaster Caroline Baum.

In terms of format, Pina: a celebration comprised three sessions, ‘Keys to your soul’, ‘Pina’s children’ and ‘Muscle memory’. Each was held in the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House and began with a conversation between Baum and her invited guests. On each occasion the conversation was followed by a film screening.

Although a major focus of the event was, to my mind anyway, on setting Bausch and her work within an Australian context, Bausch was absolutely central to the occasion and eclipsed most other aspects of the event. One of the unexpected highlights was a small snippet of footage shot in 1982 by Scott Hicks for a documentary on the 1982 Adelaide Festival at which Bausch and her company appeared. How warm and friendly Bausch seemed. And how cunningly she avoided the issue of how to describe her works by telling instead an amusing story about Alfred Hitchcock.

We saw Bausch again almost forty years later in  \’Dancing Dreams\’, a documentary made in 2010 by Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffmann on the creation of a new version of Kontakthof, a work Bausch first made in 1978 and which was seen in Australia in Adelaide in 1982.  In this new production Bausch used teenagers over the age of fourteen as her entire cast. As Bausch watched rehearsals for this show we would occasionally see a smile break out on her now lined but always expressive face. There was again a sense of warmth and tenderness from the woman who was once accused of being a ‘theatre terrorist’ and making works that were the ‘raw pulp of abuse’.

The other two films were Pina Bausch made, again by Anne Linsel, in 2006, and Life in Movement made in 2010 by Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde on the work of Tanja Liedtke. While both offered much insight, and Life in Movement in particular is an important addition to our knowledge of Liedtke’s creativity, both were at times a little subjective making them seem a tad too long. Not so with Dancing Dreams where the spoken words were forthright and honest, where the cast was able to be self critical and the young people able to analyse the role they were playing in the creative process, not to mention the effect that process was having on them. It was very refreshing,

In the conversations with Baum, three of the five guests were Australians whose work had been influenced in one way or another by Bausch: Michael Whaites, Kate Champion and Shaun Parker. What instantly stood out was the sense of objectivity they were able to bring out in their comments and answers to Baum’s questions. After the reverential tone of Bausch’s dancers in the Linsel film Pina Bausch, it was invigorating to hear something a little more down to earth. Whaites in particular, the only one of the three who had worked in close proximity to Bausch, spoke of the need to maintain just a little distance in dealing with life in Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. And on another Australian note, Dancing Dreams afforded us the pleasure of watching Jo Ann Endicott, an Australian dancer who has been with Bausch since 1973, in her role as co-rehearsal director (along with Bénédicte Billiet) for the new production of Kontakthof.

Alain Platel and Lutz Förster were Baum’s other guests. Both were in Sydney for performances of Platel’s Out of context: for Pina, which I wrote about last year and in which Förster was a performer.*

An unexpected (for me) addition to the program was a brief public conversation with photographer William Yang, whose images of two Bausch works, Kontakthof and 1980, taken at the 1982 Adelaide Festival were on view in the foyer. Yang, who admitted he was not really a great dance-goer, likened Bausch to Chekhov. ‘She understands the human condition’, he said.

Michelle Potter, 10 September 2011

*Platel was a guest on ‘Mornings with Margaret’ on 31 August 2011. His interview is available as a podcast.

 

Pina. A film by Wim Wenders

Pina, shot in 3-D and directed by the acclaimed German artist Wim Wenders, has been touted by many as showing the way forward in terms of filming dance, giving back to dance the physicality that it apparently loses in regular filming. But I’m not sure that many of the reviewers who have hailed it as a breakthrough have actually sat in a theatre and watched a performance by Pina Bausch’s company, or any other dance company for that matter.

For me the most interesting review to date has been by Australian playwright and commentator Louis Nowra. Writing in the August edition of The Monthly, Nowra astutely says, amongst other things, that the scenes shot out of doors are ‘[drained] of their claustrophobic power’, and that ‘the uterine universe that Bausch created onstage is dissipated’. His concluding statement is: ‘For all its 3-D marvels, the film finally doesn’t do her work justice’. And it doesn’t.

Pina is not really a documentary. Nor is it really a dance film. It sits uneasily between the two. It shows sequences from four major Bausch works, Rite of Spring, Café Mueller, Kontakthof and Vollmond, in most cases danced by the current company. It contains some archival footage, although not as much as one might have hoped to see. It contains solos performed outdoors in locations around Wuppertal, the German city where the company, led by Pina Bausch and now since Bausch’s death in 2009 by Dominique Mercy and Robert Stürm, has resided for almost four decades. It shows Bausch’s current dancers talking about their experiences with the company and their thoughts about what it was like working with Bausch.

Company dancers now, as they have been across the history of the company, are great movers. No doubting that. They are also articulate about their experiences and their emotional involvement in the act of working with Bausch. But what horrors are perpetrated by the 3-D technology! The scenic space in which the dancers perform is often far too deep and distorts the dancers. They often look far too small and far too thin. They don’t inhabit the space as living human beings but as kinds of puppet figures. We also, especially in footage of Rite of Spring, get some hideous close-up images (3-D close-up) of faces—images that we never see in performance, and that we are really never meant to see. Distance in the theatre has a place.

Also having a place in the theatre and often missing in Pina is the intimate contact between performers that develops in the enclosed space of a theatre stage. In the deep 3-D recesses, dancers seem to be separated or disengaged from each other, from the props and indeed from the performing space itself, not to mention from the viewer—and I don’t consider having a face thrust straight into mine courtesy of 3-D an engagement with the viewer. How much more engaging is the archival footage (not filmed in 3-D) of Bausch herself performing in Café Mueller where we see her interacting with the space around her body, her personal space, as all great dancers are able to do, rather than seeing her placed within a technological extension of space.

Going back to Louis Nowra, he is absolutely right that the very inward looking, almost narcissistic approach that seems necessary for the creation of a work by Pina Bausch is lost when the works (or parts of them) are placed out of doors. In fact for me the most interesting part of the footage shot out of doors was seeing the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal’s suspended monorail system that, as far as I am aware, is a somewhat over-engineered rail system that has never been replicated elsewhere.

Worse than that, as far as I am concerned, is that the works lose their inherent, dancerly theatricality when shot in 3-D.

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2011

Out of context—for Pina. Les Ballets C de la B

Alain Platel founded Les Ballets C de la B (Les Ballets contemporains de la Belgique) in Ghent in 1984 and since then he has always taken rather large risks in creating work for the company. Out of context—for Pina is no exception.

The work begins slowly. We sit in our seats looking for a time at a bare, sparsely lit stage. We listen to the beginnings of a soundscape of animal-like sounds. Eventually, one by one, nine dancers stand up from seats in the auditorium, move to the stage, take their places upstage with their backs to us and begin to strip down to their underwear. They wrap themselves in orange blankets and turn to confront us before beginning to interact with each other. In these initial stages the interaction is minimal. The dancers nuzzle each other gently, sniff and rub against each other. They are a little like dogs greeting each other, sniffing out territory.

The work gathers pace from here with the dancers shedding their blankets to perform and returning to their folds when lesser activity is required of them. At one stage there is a kind of disco sequence when the dancers attempt to sing snatches of popular songs although their language carries a kind of speech impediment and their movements are marked by odd twitches and tics recalling physical disability.

Platel was previously a teacher for people with motor disabilities and throughout the piece his choreography explores some kind of dichotomy between apparently dysfunctional movement and a kind of transcendental power of the human body in motion. This is nowhere more apparent than in the closing solo by a male performer whom I was unable to identify (there was no program). Dragging two full-length microphone stands with him, one in each hand, this dancer seemed on occasions to have a disability, both physical in his slightly uncoordinated movements, and otherwise as he stared out at us at the end of the solo. Yet at other times he seemed more like an Olympic athlete with a javelin in each hand.

The strongest performer overall to my mind was, however, a woman who looked a little like Frida Kahlo and who I imagine was Rosalba Torres Guerrero (similar problem with identification—no program and I relied on advertising material to guess). She had a commanding presence that showed itself in every movement, large or small. She was especially remarkable in her duets with male members of the cast, which often bordered on the erotic and which involved complex partnering, and in a scene in which she lay on the ground wrapped in her orange blanket and reacted with diverse facial movements to the appearance of an opera singer (who was not one of the dancers but who appeared from the auditorium at one stage during the performance).

As for the work’s relationship to Pina Bausch, whose name appears in the title, Platel has remarked in an interview for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail:

‘Pina died during the creation process, so I added on the dedication. I’d known her for 30 years and admired that special way she used dancers, transforming them into personalities. She also established the practice that any movement or thought could be used in dance.’

I would argue that there were choreographers in the United States working with the concept that anything could be dance well before Bausch. However, the notion of ‘anything’ is likely to be more expressionistic and emotionally confronting in choreography made in Europe than in a society like that of the United States, where a veil is often drawn over the less pleasant aspects of human behaviour (99% of the time the toilet is euphemistically referred to as the bathroom for example). The ‘anything’ vocabulary created for Out of context is confronting, but like that of Bausch demands that one have an opinion.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2010

Postscript: The performance I saw took place in the beautiful old Teatro comunale di Ferrara. The construction of this theatre, whose auditorium is horseshoe shaped in the tradition of many old European opera houses, began in 1773 and much of its original decoration remains.

Teatro comunale di Ferrara
Teatro comunale di Ferrara