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Encounter, 6-4: Breathless
Pina Meets the (French) Press
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider
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PARIS -- "What is the
source of your imagination?"
The question comes at
the end of Pina Bausch's Wednesday press conference at the Theatre
de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, which tonight sees the French premiere
of "Nefes" (Turkish for "Breath"), Bausch's latest site-created
work for the Tanztheater Wuppertal, this one developed in Istanbul,
where it premiered last year. Bausch, seemingly forever clad in
black, leans her chin on one palm, her eyes rolling upwards -- not
in exasperation, but as if searching her head for the words -- as
long tendrils of smoke spiral from the long cigarette held in her
long fingers. (Only Pina Bausch can imbue cigarette smoke with drama;
one could swear the smoke is lit with its own follow spot.)
"Desire," she answers.
Then: "The desire to find the essence of a thing."
The essence of Pina
Bausch, much imitated but never replicated, is not to be found in
a press conference or in the morsels that one out-of-practice reporter
can salvage from such a group interview, which Bausch has consented
to so that she doesn't have to grant additional interviews; ""I'm
not a big talker," she says. "I do all my things to not talk." (Contrast
this restraint with the increasing number of choreographers of the
current generation, here in Europe anyway, who seem to create "dances"
so that they can talk.) But for the true Pina (and Tanztheater
Wuppertal, let's not forget those droll performer-collaborators)
groupie -- for whom even a three-hour spectacle, sans intermission,
is not enough -- the press conference can and does flesh out the
process behind the work, if only a little, and amplify the artist's
motivation and creative universe.
This being France, where
the schools until recently have discouraged interrogation, your
humble correspondent was obliged to get things going, which he did
by reminding Bausch of her remarks at the end of Chantal Ackerman's
1983 documentary (screened at the Centre Pompidou recently),
"One Day Pina Asked me to...." "What do you want for the future?"
the filmmaker asks. Bausch's shoulders slacken, as if under the
weight of the world, and her head dips, as she repeats gloomily,
"What do I want for the future? There are so many problems in the
world....Strength." Noting that some would say the world has even
more problems now, I ask her how she would respond to the question
"When she asked me that
question, I had more time to think of an answer," says Bausch, dressed
in black slacks, turtleneck, and jacket (discarded halfway through
the 75-minute encounter), her long hair in the signature loose ponytail.
"I feel still very similar because we all need a lot of strength
to continue and to do and make positive efforts, and not give up.
Our desire doesn't stop, to build, create, make friendships. It
What does change for
Tanztheater Wuppertal is the locale in which it creates a new spectacle.
Istanbul, however, felt in one respect like a homecoming. The troupe
had been there before, with "Der Fensterputzer" (The Window-Washer).
"This was one of the most wonderful performances we ever had --
I will never forget it," she recounts. "There's a scene where a
dancer takes out pictures of herself when she's small, showing them
to the public; later on, all the dancers do this. And suddenly,
the public also took their family pictures out and started showing
them to each other."
One might be skeptical
about whether an artist, even one of the intuitive capacity of Pina
Bausch, can come to know a country and city well enough to create
a piece about it after a three-week residency. But the premise would
be wrong, because in these site-created works, the ville
is not so much the subject as the canvas, or even the wind, inflected
gestures of place subtly affecting the gestures of movement and
the landscape of story. "Nefes" -- which uses Tom Waits as well
as the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, among other music, and even retains
tango in the shape of Astor Piazzolla -- is "not only about Istanbul,
it's about us in this time -- what we want to express," says Bausch.
"Each time" the company creates in residency, the resulting spectacle
draws "only a tiny bit from where we are working." But material
assimilated in one milieu might show up later in another piece.
"Material" might be
too crass a term to describe what Bausch retains from her residencies.
For instance, asked about working in Istanbul, she recalls the joy
of the Wuppertal performers excited to practice their Turkish --
they crammed before the trip -- with the local technicians after
the first rehearsal. And the interaction she wants to talk about
did not involve a cultural heavy-weight, but her driver. The morsel
he gave her whose essence we might find in a future work -- that's
my conjecture based on how it seems to have affected her, not her
promise -- is the sadness of this older man when they drove past
his house, which he'd sold, and around which the new owners had
put a fence. Is that a feeling of loss? Is it a feeling of regret?
Of finding it difficult to accept change? Is it a theme that could
be expressed to sum up a libretto? Probably not, but this is precisely
the matter that Bausch deals in, the inchoate; if we can't (well,
I can't!) reproduce a linear "plot" after we see a Bausch ballet,
we know there was a story, we know it took us from a to b to c (if
not z), and that if we're not changed for life -- "What we do is
so little," Bausch acknowledges sadly -- we're re-oriented, or at
least emerge askew from the orientation we had before the curtain
went up. Before I knew -- before I really knew -- I wrote a clever
item simply listing all the props that Bausch had utilized in a
show (in fact, "Der Fensterputzer," seen at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music), but these are a diversion because the drama of a Bausch
spectacle comes not from what was seen, but from how it alters your
view, whether globally or on an intimate scale.
Also intriguing for
her in Istanbul, as a source of inspiration, was that "the women
in Turkey are a big mystery.... You don't see how they look because
they are covered, but you have their eyes. And you have a fantasy
of how they are...underneath."
The harsh reality for
up to half of all Turkish women, according to a report issued by Amnesty International
Wednesday, is that they are victims of domestic violence, including
so-called "honor" killings, and that while neither the problem nor
its scale are unique to Turkey, the failure of the authorities to
adequately recognize and address the crime is. As "Nefes" would
seem, from the program description, to treat relations between men
and women, I ask Bausch if the piece addresses this aspect of their
relationship in Turkey.
"There are many ways
we can do a work," Bausch begins. "I always try to find something
that is similar in us -- what we have together, why we can understand
each other. Why music makes us sad, happy. I try to find a way to
speak about this language of being together." She never addresses
something so specific as, in this case, domestic violence. But regarding
domestic violence in Turkey, she says, "We know in any part of the
world things like this exist." The local producers who introduced
the company to Istanbul, from the International Istanbul Theatre
Festival and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, "didn't
show us only the good sides, only the chocolate sides. They showed
us where the problems are too, opposite sides. We saw poor and strange
things." And regarding the situation of women, she found that apparently,
"In Turkey, all the people in important positions are women. I don't
remember any other country where women are so strong."
The violence of our
times is not confined to Turkey, and many artists in dance and theater,
one questioner pointed out Wednesday, have responded to this violence
by reflecting it in increasingly brutal work, while Bausch, by contrast,
has become more and more positive in her creations. Why?
"It's a reaction to
this" violence, she explains. "I react different. There is a reaction
because it is so terrible. It's in each one's hands. I thought
years ago, If I now cannot once smile, I have to give up, I cannot
continue. If I can help how you are with other people, to try to
keep a balance.... I feel like even difficult decisions should be
taken on balance. I don't know if it's better to all blow on the
same horn about 'How terrible it is,' or if we need an effort to
remind us it could be different." If she is responding to carnage
with roses (my words), "It's not an escape, it's a reaction."
"I did a lot of things
before completely different," she adds, "but that was a different
time and I felt the opposite. What we try to do is so little, and
I'm happy about any result because it's so little in relation to
what you want to say. It's never enough, but maybe that's why I
don't stop. The past few years I've still felt like I can't do anything,
and yet I still tried. It's so little, and I know. So we just try.
We are little people making something small....
"I'm like a child --
if somebody does something nice or smiles at me, I'm happy.... When
we're travelling, sometimes we think how lucky we are -- we have
so many experiences. I would like to spend my life giving back some
of this beauty we have received -- that I can only do with my company."
The Theatre de la Ville
- Sarah Bernhardt is just across the street from the Seine; across
the River on your right, you can see the Eiffel Tower, which now
lights up in sparkles for ten minutes every hour after sunset. Cross
the bridge just in front of you, and you're on the Ile St. Louis,
where after Pina's early evening press conference I found myself
a spot on the stone boardwalk facing Notre Dame. A soft wind was
blowing, caressing the cheek and making the trees rustle as in a
Corot painting. Like the wind, the effects of a Pina Bausch spectacle
(or a Pina Bausch press conference, it turns out) may be invisible,
but the atmosphere has been altered.
Pina Bausch's "Nefes" (Breath), a co-production of the International
Istanbul Theatre Festival and Istanbul Foundation for Culture and
Arts, receives its French premiere tonight on the Tanztheater Wuppertal
at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, where it
continues through June 22. Decor and videos are by Peter Pabst,
costumes by Marion Cito, and musical collaboration by Matthias Burkert
and Andreas Eisenschneider. For more information, please click here. In the Fall, Tanztheater
Wuppertal brings Pina Bausch's 2002 "For the Children of Today,
Tomorrow, and the Future" to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Next
spring, the Paris Opera Ballet performs Bausch's 1975 "Orphee et
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