Thursday, 2 July 2009

What Pina Bausch meant to me - The Fairy Queen

So many tributes to Pina Bausch, and many by people who know dance whose opinions count for a lot. So I won't do another "me too" but express what she meant to me, personally.

Bausch's influence went far beyond dance. Her company Wuppertal Tanztheater was so named because it wasn't just dance but theatre in the widest sense of the word. And "Wuppertal" because it was neutral, throwing focus on the dancers not the "star". Bausch wasn't bothered so much about what moves a dancer made as by why the move was made at all. She didn't "choreograph" as grand theory. Instead, she and her people thought about feelings and expression, ideas and motivations : her work grew organically, from inside outwards - method acting in dance ? But the implications for music and opera run deep too.

Around 1980, I saw The Rite of Spring and Café Müller. The Rite was amazingly raw and barbaric. In those days I'd seen Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham so the idea of modern dance wasn't scary but nothing could have prepared anyone for Pina Bausch. It shaped the way I listen to Stravinsky for better or worse. Seeing the 1980's recreation of the Diaghilev original, compiled from stills and drawings restored the folkloric aspects : or did it ? Is the Rite folklore at all or is it something more visceral ?

Yet for all its impact, it wasn't a patch on Café Müller. Blank stage, filled with empty chairs. You "felt" the emptiness like it was a presence. And the music was Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen.

Yes, the same music as in the recent Glyndebourne production, but extracts chosen for their surreal eerieness. "See, even Night herself is here" when the fairies and the world of dreams take over. Not for nothing they used the voice of a countertenor (Alfred Deller, the big name countertenor at the time). In those days, early music was still a fairly new fashion, and hearing it in this context really was shocking. In those days baroque was either tidied up for mid 20th century taste or ascetically, academically HIP. Then along comes Pina Bausch and makes you really think what it could be. Then just as your sensibilities are lulled, sound stops altogether and the dancers just was impossible to understand but it felt right emotionally, utterly intriguing. Yet like the chairs, the void is not unfilled.

Pina Bausch taught me that images don't have to be literal or even explicitly understood. They can be interpreted in different ways, by different people and at different times and their meaning can change over time. We don't need to know everything but we respect the idea of things being expressed, even obliquely.

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