Overlapping Waves

13 March 2008

Still a bit haunted by Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring that Kate and I saw a couple of weeks ago at Sadlers Wells.

First there was something faintly pantomime about the dynamics – or melodrama at least  – the flock of gaunt women versus the mob of extremely triangular guys with their shirts off; muscle and attitude everywhere. A lot of circling and stalking, menace, trembling and eye contact, followed by a lot of full-on throwing, running and jumping. Think Fertility, Seasons, Fecundity, Men, Women and a strong dose of Sacrifice on a big empty floor covered in dark earth and you won’t be far off. I felt a bit distant from it all at first I guess – I often have to look at my shoes when symbols are in operation. The music also had me laughing inadvertently from time to time – something between its strident modernist discordia, coupled with the dancers' spectacular exertions on the earth and the general air of 'tops-off hand-to-hand combat' made me think quite specifically of Star Trek. I'm not really sure why – I don't think that Rodenberry et al used Stravinsky for soundtrack and Kirk/Shatner never looked anything remotely as good as Bausch's dancers, that's for sure. But the connection once made in my head was hard to shake, as can be the case with such inappropriate associations.

What very much more than saves the piece though is how unapologetic it is for its aesthetic, and for its symbolism. Doesn't even blink. This, it says, is what we are doing. If you don't like it you can probably figure out where the door is

The other real clincher is the lengths to which Bausch and the dancers are prepared to go, pushing things and themselves. The physical stakes are very high, very driven. The whole thing establishes a kind of muscular vividness that while I was watching made dance as dance – bodies, motion, space – make sense to me as dance only does infrequently. Bausch is so good at drawing shapes on the stage, so good at setting one energy against another, so good at pulling one scene, or movement or mood out of another that here, very often, it's simply breathtaking – in spite of all my unhelpful Star Trek associations.  There's something machinic about the work too – a kind of pounding intensity to the swirl of crossing lines, circles, groups, chases, stillnesses – something so full-on, precise and committed, that you only notice it might have a human cost in terms of *effort* in the moments where the dancers stop still together, chests heaving in not-quite-unison, and the sound of their breathing comes rolling from the stage in ragged overlapping waves.

For all its beauty, skill and mastery as dance (which I suppose keeps some people happy on a certain level) it's essentially a very very brutal, dark and antisocial piece of work – especially as the ghost of it’s gender melodrama gets worked more and more raw, the rather bald/transparent symbols get beaten out of their hideouts in the ether, dragged into substance, drawn out of the bodies, stamped out of the ground itself to rise up in the dirt and the sweat to make something real, frightening and present. I guess that’s what they teach about ritual in performance studies or whatever, but I never saw it happen quite like this until now, and weirdly, only here, now, writing this, do I understand that this is what I saw back there in London. The imagery of the performance warps and shifts over time too somehow. If there's something a bit pastoral-Disney in the first encounter between the men and the women, it's not long before the atmosphere is flashing off in directions more like death camp, Russian roulette or gang rape. More sexuality (and dance) as desperate inevitability and faceless pulverization than either of them as creative and individual means of expression or collective route to freedom. There's an inexorable, grinding and harsh quality about the whole thing.

What I really wanted to write about though, as has been the case for me before with Pina Bausch, is the curtain call. Back in the 80’s I wrote a piece for Performance Magazine about Cafe Muller which I'd seen in Edinburgh, noting the lack of change in the dancers after the performance as they returned to the stage for their bows. The severity and poise of the piece followed them into the curtain call, the dancers refusing to let its fiction drop. In Cafe Muller this felt a little bit like strategy – weird, mildly annoying but effective nonetheless in its signal/refusal to let matters drop – the transfer of the piece's problem to the real time and space of the auditorium. In Rite of Spring though, we went a very different route to a similar place as the lead dancer – Ruth Amarante – came back for something like three curtain calls in a shaking, exhausted and weeping state that seemed to border physical breakdown – consequence, you could only imagine, of the piece in general and the spectacular and physically devastating final solo in which (in narrative at least) she's required to dance herself to death. There was something very unsettling about this, with sparks of the 'is it real/has it somehow become real?' kind flying off in all directions. Amazing.

At the interval Kate and I had been talking about the intense privacy of these Bausch pieces – not a single moment of direct contact or acknowledgement of the audience in either of them – the dancers lost in their own little world up there on the stage, locked into its logic, space, and set of relations. There's so much theatre in dance these days, so much performance and so much self-consciousness (at least in the end of dance I get to see!) that this felt really odd, out of time, no matter how easy in fact it was to settle into and enjoy. By the time of the Rite of Spring curtain call though it was really making sense to me – the curtain call as the one moment to check in together – dancers and audience – to see what had happened. Watching Amarante you got confirmation, if you didn't know it already, that something really had.


You can find the short text I wrote in the 80’s about curtain calls in general, including Bausch’s Cafe Muller, in Certain Fragments.

Some very nice stuff about riots and fistfights at the 1913 Nijinsky/Stravinsky premiere of Rite of Spring on Wikipedia, esp the detail of Nijinsky having to stand on a chair in the wings throughout the latter parts of the performance and yell out the counts to the dancers on the stage because the music was getting drowned by the escalation of fighting and outrage in the auditorium.

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