It's difficult to think of another European dance artist who has continued
throughout her career to be both as influential and as controversial as
the German choreographer Pina Bausch. Although Bausch trained in New York
for three years from 1959-62 during her formative phase as a young dancer,
her sensibility is firmly European in the visions of a dark, brooding and
tension-filled world her theatre depicts.
It is this vision that is the source of enthusiasm for some and controversy
for others. Bausch's dance works, many of which are evening- long, offer
different vantage points on a compelling yet bleak portrait of humanity.
Often what is most vivid in Bausch's dances is the inhumanity of men and
women toward each other and the callous indifference of the world that
surrounds them. What has irked American dance critics since Bausch made
her U.S. debut in June 1984 at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles,
is not this subject matter of her work so much as her coolly neutral position
in regards to the often brutal, aggressive and physically and emotionally
cruel episodes in her dances. "She keeps referring us to the act of brutalization
and humiliation - to the pornography of pain," said the leading dance critic
Arlene Croce in The New Yorker, about Bausch's American debut. "The
unsettling thing about Bausch's work, despite its originality and mastery,
is that it leaves one unsure of where she stands in the moral spectrum,"
complained Alan Kriegsman of The Washington Post of the same debut
Ironically, as much as American critics have taken issue with Bausch's
dance theatre, practicing artists embrace her - her work is widely emulated
by both European and American choreographers and theatre directors. Robert
Wilson, Anna Teresa der Keersmacher, Bill T. Jones and Peter Stein are
among the leading dance, theatre and opera directors whose aesthetic has
been shaped by contact with Bausch's work. In a Pina Bausch dance the invisible
divide between the real person and the stage character seems to collapse
so that one often has the sense of watching barely mediated real life events.
This isn't art rendered as life so much as living rendered as art. In a
dance like Café Müller, a vision of the kind of gritty
working class cafe Bausch's parents used to run in Germany, physical exchanges
are repulsively brutal: A man repeatedly slams a woman into a wall, and
she obliges him by doing the same, grabbing him about the waist and hurling
him at the wall with such violence that he can only cushion the impact
by throwing out his hands and his feet ahead of him at the last minute.
Long before British sculptor Damion Hurst was displaying butchered animals
preserved in formaldehyde, Bausch was pioneering something close to the
dance equivalent - the body under physical and emotional assault suspended
in time and space by the framing device of the stage.
Physically, Bausch's dances are highly visual and textural, as much
as kinetic spectacles, and this adds to their visceral impact. The weekend
before she comes to Stanford, Bausch will perform her 1982 Nelken
(Carnations), at U.C. Berkeley, a dance emblematic of Bausch's style. The
dance action in Nelken takes place on a stage heaped with thousands
of freshly cut pink carnations which get thoroughly trampled over the next
two hours. Performed by twenty-one dancers and four professional stunt
men, Nelken opens with male dancers in cocktail dresses crawling
among the flowers, giggling and playing leapfrog before they are confronted
with passport officers and snarling dogs. Later in the dance men sniff
onion slices and come up crying and a nearly nude woman carries an accordion,
but doesn't play it.
These dream-like visual non-sequiturs are hallmarks of Bausch's work
and they rely heavily on the audience to give form and assign meaning to
what is seen. This may in part be why viewers like Croce and Kriegsman
are so disturbed by the lack of a clear moral position in the work. It
may also be why Bausch's choreography seems so paradigmatically post World
War II German. Like the performance form of Butoh, which arose in post
war Japan, Bausch's Tanztheatre is rawly expressionistic,
posing open questions and offering few easy answers about culpability,
moral responsibility and humanity's dark side.
Another aspect of Bausch that distresses some American critics is what
seems an almost anti-feminist stance at times. Indeed, she often pushes
familiar male-female interactions to their extremes, so that they totter
on the edge of the humorous and the anguished. An example is a moment in
the middle of Café Müller where a man and a woman lock
in a desperate embrace, only to be systematically repositioned by a third
man so that the woman keeps sliding from her partner's arms and crashing
to the floor. This repeats nearly a dozen times (repetition is another
favorite Bausch device) until the forlorn couple repeats this brutality
on their own in a Pavlovian response of self-inflicted brutality.
Formally, Bausch's theatre also presents challenges. Instead of over
control, her dance theatre works seem to showcase disunity and an assemblage
of visual and emotional textures. As the New Criterion critic Laura
Jacobs once noted: "A Bausch evening, you realize, takes place in those
three to four inches between nature and nurture, good and evil and just
about any other dichotomy one cares to name. It's a tight crawl space."
In the fifteen years since Bausch's first appearance in Los Angeles,
American post modern dance has found its own way into the territory of
loss, mortality and pain that initially seemed the almost exclusive province
of Bausch. This is because of AIDS and the specter of massive tragedy and
sorrow that now haunts dance makers in locales far broader than Germany
and Japan. The fact that the rest of the world now has first hand experience
with Bausch's vision is a sad, not joyous reality. It does however, invite
us to regard her works as prophetic in the way some of the richest and
most disquieting art can be.
(Janice Ross is a member of the dance faculty of the Drama Department
at Stanford, where she lectures on dance history and criticism.)