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Review Journal, 2-18: War Dance
At 'The Green Table' with Pina Bausch
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- For all the
codes orange, allegations of linkage to terrorists, hints at an
imminent chemical attack and finger-wagging at 'Old Europe,' the
most immediate worry in the ante-chamber of the United Nations February
5 was a work of art called "Guernica," by a painter named Picasso,
the gift of a former vice president named Rockefeller. So afraid
were the functionaries of the United Nations of the spectacle of
diplomats discussing the possibility of war against the backdrop
of Picasso's profound depiction of its horrors, that they dropped
a blue curtain over the painting (as opposed to, say, dropping a
curtain over the propaganda being presented as 'evidence' by Colin
Powell). But the positive message in this act for artists is that
their most potent voice in agitating against war may not be the
one they bring before the microphone their celebrity status sometimes
accords them, but their creative expression. I was reminded of this
recently at the exhaustive month-long Videodanse festival that's
taken over the basement of the Centre Pompidou through Monday, watching
Peter Wright's 1972 BBC production of Kurt Jooss's "The Green Table,"
performed by the Folkwang Ballet of Essen and featuring Pina Bausch
as the Old Woman.
Those of you familiar
with "The Green Table" might want to skip this paragraph. Jooss,
a pupil of Rudolf von Laban, was already at work on his highly-stylized
anti-war ballet when Nazism surged in 1932, the year the ballet
was completed and premiered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in
Paris. The 30-minute work, to a sparse piano score by Fritz Cohen,
begins and ends with the machinations of a group of grotesquely-masked
diplomats around a rectangular table. In between, and shadowed by
the central character of Death (played initially by Jooss and, most
famously in the U.S., by Christian Holder in the Joffrey's 1967
restaging), a series of almost Noh-like tableaux unfold: battle,
trysts, refugees in flight, war-profiteers, each concluding with
Death enveloping the players.
Perhaps I was influenced
by the knowledge of just who the dancer was, but the most poignant
image for me was of Bausch's Old Woman, trying to fend off the misery
of a refugee with those arms, those arms, her spine bearing but
not bending under the burden, her face always looking up fatalistically
in anticipation of the stray bullets. Even Bausch's Old Woman, with
those arms and that sturdy spine, ultimately could not bear the
burden and surrendered to Death.
But Death, in Jooss's
vision, is not so much the villain as the consequence. In each section,
he materializes almost regretfully, as if to say, "Has it come to
this now?," wearying of his own burden. The villains here are those
'diplomats' who close the ballet with congratulatory hand-shaking
all around. I couldn't help think of the glad-handling that reportedly
preceded Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council. Kurt
Jooss's "The Green Table" presents another type of 'evidence' to
be considered before launching a war that could kill thousands of
innocents, one that, while a drama, is the opposite in verity of
the fiction presented by Mr. Powell. After watching it I had a thought:
What if every ballet company in the world added this ballet to its
repertoire this season? Now THAT would make a statement.
The Theatre des Champs-Elysees
was, of course, also the stage for the premiere of Vaslav Nijinsky's
"Sacre du Printemps" in 1913. Many choreographers have essayed the
Stravinsky music since, and almost as many have fallen flat on their
faces. An exception is Bausch. In Bausch's conception, the characters'
internal lives are almost as important as their external indications.
The most fascinating aspect of "Rehearsal of 'Sacre," the 1994 Herbert
Rach documentary shown at the Videodanse festival, is not the corrections
Bausch gives to Kyomi Ichida as she swings her arms and torso around
and around, but that Bausch's focus isn't just on the dancer's arms.
She gazes just as intently into her eyes, as if checking how her
soul is essaying this emotionally exacting choreography.
Bausch often seems to
be operating at two levels. Her interpreters are so full of personality
that one can easily miss the rigor of their dancing and of what
they're dancing. I had this thought again on viewing a 1986 video
of "Cafe Muller." Sure, there are the devices, principally the way
the characters portrayed by (an extraordinarily long-armed) Bausch
and Malou Airaudo stagger around like sonambulists or blind women
while Jean Sasportes faithfully and frantically clears the chairs
and tables from impeding them. But an exacting, full-room, multi-level,
gymnastic solo performed by Dominique Mercy would offer kinetic
appeal even extracted from the particular situation. And many of
the tasks of the performers are purely physical, whether it's the
skittering around of Nazareth Panedero (she gets the high-heels
for this one), or an extended segment in which Jan "Fensterputzer"
Minarik places Airaudo in the arms of Mercy, who drops her as soon
as Minarik walks away, the latter returning at increasingly frenetic
speeds to re-couple them as the sequence repeats and repeats. As
well, I was reminded of Bausch's symphonic approach to construction.
Each space is occupied, and a minor key often continues in the background
of the central action, whether it's Bausch bumping into walls or
a seated Airaudo ritualistically disrobing, her back to the camera.
The many imitators of Bausch forget this -- while her material may
be received as zany, Bausch's approach is anything but random.
Videodanse 2003 continues
through February 24, with more Pina on view tomorrow: "Coffee with
Pina" alternates scenes from "Agua" with intimate photographs of
the choreographer; and Anne Linsen's 1994 "Pina Bausch in India"
follows Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal as it tours "Nekken" to Bombay
and Calcutta, drawing comparisons between her oeuvre and the native
forms of Kathakali and Bharata Natyam. Also on view tomorrow are
"Maya Plissetskaya Assoluta" and a video of Jane Dudley's "Harmonica
Each day features theme
programs, with most of Saturday's program taken up by "Danse Americaine."
And here I have my only bone to pick with the curators of this festival.
In keeping with the limited scope of U.S. choreographers French
theaters think fit for presentation, this program concentrates on
the usual (albeit deserving) suspects who either work primarily
in Europe or tour here frequently, such as Merce Cunningham ("Walkaround
Time"), William Forsythe ("William Forsythe"), Meg Stuart ("Meg
Stuart's Alibi") and Carolyn Carlson ("Carolyn Carlson.") These
are all good choices. My complaint is that the festival has limited
its inclusion of American artists to those who have a strong performing
That quibble noted,
the Pompidou deserves major plaudits for the overall presentation
of the festival: We're not talking here about just one screen. On
descending to level -1 of the museum, one discovers two sets of
multiple seating pods, with each pod accorded its own monitor. To
the right, a darkened large exhibition room offers one large screen
and a row of individual screens, where one (or two) can plop down
on a stack of carpet squares. The exhibition room next door divides
into two spaces, each with large screens and stacked (and carpeted)
platform seating for spectators. All these screens are showing the
Oh, and one more thing:
It's all free; you don't even pay museum admission. U.S. programmers,
please take note!
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