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

Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring

Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring has always fascinated me. I had seen her production on video in 1989 but never in the flesh. What I had seen in the flesh was the famous (or infamous) Nijinsky version, the original Rite of Spring, as restaged by Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson for the Joffrey Ballet, as well as Maurice Bejart’s Rite of Spring danced by the Tokyo Ballet. But the Bausch version kept haunting me, largely because in my mind it was closely connected with Meryl Tankard who had made such an impact in Canberra with her Meryl Tankard Company between 1989 and 1992. The opportunity to see, at last, a live production of the Bausch version arose in early 2008 when Tanztheater Wuppertal was visiting London. At the time I made some brief, random notes in the hope that one day they would be useful in some context:

  • Stravinsky did not dominate, such was the power of Bausch’s choreography. The movement was so expressive of changes in rhythm, sonority, volume and so forth that the music and movement became powerful partners. There was an organic relationship between the music and the choreography, which seems to be missing in the Hodson/Archer reconstruction.
  • This was much more ‘pure dance’ than in any other of Bausch’s works that I had seen and as such it displayed the great technical prowess of her dancers. Not only are they actors in the mode of dance theatre but they are also dancers of the highest order. Dancing in unison they were breathtaking as they were when displaying their capacity to become totally involved in the unfolding of the drama, almost to the extent of entering into a trance like state. Their classical training was clearly in evidence – they could jump, they were turned out, they could extend their limbs. They danced with the whole body and each part of the body was allowed to be expressive to the utmost degree.
  • Looking beyond technique, their shudders, their shaking, their actions of fear and panic built to emotional crescendo after emotional crescendo. One of the most moving moments occurred when the whole stage was filled with frenzied bodies sometimes rushing past each other, sometimes hugging each other giving not just the feeling of impending disaster but of the capacity of human beings to offer support to others.
  • Although it seemed so much like ‘pure dance’, the dancers’ gasps, sighs, and other ‘verbal’ outpourings of exhaustion, panic and fear, were given a place in the work. They were never intrusive. They were gut wrenching and such an essential part of the overpowering drama of the situation.
  • Bausch has an eye for the structure of movement and for arranging bodies over the space of the stage. Whether she arranges the dancers into one or two or several tightly knit groups, or has them move around the stage in one large circle, or scatters them apparently randomly over the stage space with each dancer performing individually, the effect is always powerful and always harmonious.
  • The ‘chosen one’ was a tiny Filipino girl who stood out from the beginning as if she knew it was her destiny to be selected from among the females. She seemed overpowered by the red dress that the victim must wear as she tossed it to others. It was as if it were burning through her. As a powerful foil to the huge emotional involvement by the ‘chosen one’, the male who made the choice played the role almost without emotion. Lying on the floor motionless with his arms stretched forward as if waiting to receive her, or dressing her in the red dress, his back to the audience, his movements were solid, steady and totally without feeling.

I saw Rite of Spring performed at Sadler’s Wells, London, by Tanztheater Wuppertal on 20 February 2008 (with Café Müller as the other work on the program). I wish now, almost eighteen months later, that I had written more.

Michelle Potter, 13 June 2009