25 December 2010

Pina Bausch at l’OpĂ©ra de Paris

24 decembre, 2010  Paris

December 24, 2010

It is Christmas Eve, Paris, and the cathedral bells chime, seemingly oblivious of the digitally synchronized clocks of 21st century cell phones and laptops. Their inundating sound arises first from a lone bell, then is joined, mirrored and echoed by others across the arrondissement and beyond. This sonic resonance builds in waves, comes into alignment for a brief moment, then breaks and fractures into multiple voices once again. Finally, the last lone bell comes to rest, its pendulum quieted—most likely by electronic control. A rite of the season, to mark the mass, the time of Christ’s birth, to be repeated again at sunrise, Christmas morning. No thought of the sacrifice on the cross, of the 40 days and nights in the wilderness, of whippings, a trial, a tomb.

Yet at the Opéra Garnier, the ornate, opulent jewel in the crown of French culture, the Ballet de l’Opéra chooses to feature Pina Bausch’s 1975 choreography to Stravinsky’s Sacre de Printemps as its holiday fare.  (To compensate for the lack of a Nutcracker, they have also put up a run of Nureyev’s Swan Lake at the Bastille.) In Bausch’s breakthrough work of astounding velocity, possession and collective penitential agony, another birthing ritual unfolds. Unfold may not be the right descriptive verb; true to the Stravinsky score, it accumulates to the very edge then collapses to the ground on the last note.  And the red dress that the cast of 16 lithe women in thin slips alternately lie upon and cling to then cast away like a curse, is part dread, part promise of female fertility, and has nothing to do with Santa. What the audience witnesses is a grim embodiment en masse of a community driven by its own ancestral memory of imagined cause and effect (without the means of scientific or other proof) to choose at random a young woman to be cast out, don the red dress, and dance herself to death.

The group from which she eventually emerges, only just before the last Sacrificial Dance, has undergone repeated cathartic attempts to purge itself of a fearful inevitability defined by tensions between the group of 16 women and an equal number of men, led by an “elder” or dancer slightly older and more commanding in presence than the others.  The first light reveals a woman lying downstage left on a red fabric, clinging to it and to the raw, brown earth beneath that covers the entire stage.  The women enter in ones and twos, already entranced with anticipation, caught in moonbeams that burn in bright diagonals across the stage. We feel their strong but gorgeously articulated ballerinas’ bare feet connecting to the soil. After all the women enter and fling up their arms, letting their hands press down on their breasts as if in heat or bathing in the light, they are joined by a somewhat threatening, aggressive rush of bare-chested men, mirroring the sudden propulsion of the musical score—a pattern that reoccurs many times. 

Another blow-by-blow account of the action would not really serve the reader. There are countless accounts, articles and books that take apart this seminal 20th century masterwork and lay it bare for scholars and lay audiences alike. My interest is more in orienting myself to the meanings of its current restaging in Paris, the home of the original version’s creation and infamous premiere. And in doing so, I will also bear witness and pay homage.

 If the word sacred and the French sacre for rite are born of the same stuff, i.e. a rite or ritual defines what is sacred, then Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring is sacred to an excess, or divine excess. The relentless, full-bodied dancing combs from the mid-century greats everything that is the biggest and best and moves it into a realm we all dreamed of what could be back in the 60’s-70’s. From Graham, the convulsive, taut, coiled spring of the pelvis as it wracks the torso into infinite variety of expressive distortions, contours and oppositional pulls.  Woman as lightening rod, tuning fork, as ultimate victim (and heroine) in the battle of the sexes and against her own fear. From Limon, the arc of the torso following the rise and fall of the head, the rounding, circling torso and arms carving arcs to highlight the curve of the torso,  the architecture of unison groups, of groups split into canons or successionally splintering into runs, falls to the floor, and recovery. From Wigman and the Germans, raw, relentless power, movement choruses, lyrical, hyper-emotive solo turns, and shame, guilt, destruction.

Not that Limon and Graham didn’t dance their share of the heavy stuff. (Limon writhing in jealous rage as The Moor, Graham as doom-eager Jocasta or vengeful Clytemnestra.) Bausch witnessed it all while a student at Juilliard in the New York of the late 50,s early 60s, when Sokolow, Graham, Tudor and Limon were the defining currency of modern dance. And she knew her Wigman and Jooss from her years at the Folkwangschule in Essen. But what she brought to the feast was a fearless freedom to put it all into one big pot and stir it up, to the biggest, best, and most divinely excessive score of modern music yet composed.

If there were moments when I wished the smoke would clear and a lone solo voice would turn away from the action to reflect, to reveal a moment of vulnerability that was not already magnified and beaten to a pulp, I still reveled in the 4-5 freezes in action that stopped the work in its tracks for the planet to catch up, and for me to take a breath. In fact, I learned most about these performers and was moved by them was in the transitions between poses, common dance leg extensions a la seconde or classroom combinations that become the thematic threads of the work. Here, the Paris opera dancers showed their commitment and vulnerability, giving an authenticity to the subtle weight shift or breaking of the body’s form that cannot be taught in the studio but must be experienced in the heat of total engagement, and in embodiment of Bausch’s esthetic. As the rhythms of the familiar score became so terrifyingly, viscerally mirrored in the intricately choreographed tremors of group dancing, I found myself curled sideways in my chair, moved to moments of tears and trembling. Was I finally seeing what I’d always imagined listening to that hair-raising music? I’d seen interpretations by Graham, Taylor, at least five others, and created my own solo video to the landmark score. Had someone finally really done it?

As I write this, I ponder again the function of this endeavor: to bear witness, orient, pay homage. Give creedence, (to a world of disbelievers who doubt the power, poetry and theory of dance), to provide commentary from someone who has paid his dues, to open a dialogue with this and future generations. Having also studied at Juilliard under Bausch’s teachers Alfredo Corvino, Antony Tudor, and the senior members of both Graham and Limon companies, to have been the only dancer ever to have danced in both Limon and Graham companies under their living founders, to have choreographed over 150 works from solos to groups of 20… I believe I am qualified to bear witness and comment upon the phenomenon of such dance. After all, dances are trigger points, springboards for flights of thought. As it should be! In the body is the beginning and ending. Dancers know this best. A life devoted to dance is a kind of self-immolation. You dance til you drop.  So this is as much an homage to dancers, and to one of its greatest, Pina Bausch.

There was one big question that remained with me after leaving the Opera and entering the festively lit streets of Paris to take the Metro home: Why did Bausch have the chosen maiden experience her convulsive martyrdom or sacrifice alone, while the group watch on from the opposite upstage corner and the elder man reclined on his back, arms reaching in the arm, as if waiting to receive he maiden onto his erect phallus? (We had seen him earlier lie down and press his pelvis onto the red fabric, reminiscent of Nijinsky’s Faun.) I was sure she’d make a last rush to him, that he marked the vortex and final destination. She was chosen by him as the elect, but then expelled from her community, left alone to work out her agony apart from the frame or haven of collective ritual. In solitude, we see her enact with her body a dark night of the soul, her 40 days in the wilderness, the fate of all woman, condensed into a matter of minutes. In this brief time, all history accelerates. Individuation occurs, consciousness of one’s aloneness in the universe, of nothingness, of brute injustice, of the limits of free choice… and the possibility of the choice of relenting to that realization as the only choice. But in this dance, inevitability has taken hold, and the solitary woman is programmed already to play out to the fatal end the momentum or possession that has seized her friends and family and cast her out to the unfriendly stars, without mercy.

But as this last scene builds to its conclusion, one woman steps out from the group to slowly walk down along the side of the stage, watching every move the victim makes. She stations herself at the lower corner opposite the group, like a marker to orient the chosen one on the diagonal axis: the same path of light burned into the ground at the very start of the work. What is she thinking? Why is she so immobile? Why did she step away from the group? So finally, I have my witness, my own pivotal perspective or point of view through whose eyes and body I, too, can witness this event. At last, Bausch has provided me with the stamp of her own eye. She has created for us an event that is happening as we sit in the theater, but she also brings to life countless metaphors and rituals and performances, as any great artist will do. Before us is a meta-event of such grandiose proportions that it marks for me another notch in the recording by its most talented and perceptive artists of humanity’s own complex system, and its distorted, often aborted attempts at an evolution towards the light, towards regeneration, towards spring.

On a Christmas Eve in Paris, 2010, with waters rising on the Seine from accumulated ice and snow, and a long winter waiting for me upon my return to the American Midwest, I am left with these thoughts, and a sobering, gut-wrenching gift from Pina Bausch and the terrific dancers of lOpéra de Paris.