A Question of Legacy; A text Inspired by Pina Bausch by Tessa Willson Jan 17 in Article, Mapping by Tessa Wills
Pina Bausch’s company Tanztheater Wuppertal from Germany visited Berkley to perform Danzón in December 2011. It gives me an opportunity to crystalise some questions which bang around for me constantly as a working artist living in the Bay Area, but trained in Europe. How is her work expanded, reflected, fetishised or disregarded by contemporary Bay Area performance makers? Do we share a family tree? Why does European ‘Dance Theater’ have special resonance in the Bay Area right now?
Tanztheater Wuppertal’s recent two night run at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley was the only visit the company made to the United States on their current world tour. After the death two years ago of its founder, Pina Bausch, the company is experiencing a vulnerable period of emergence and reformulation in relation to the question of her legacy. “We are in a very special and also fragile situation.” said Dominique Mercy, a long-time company member and new co-artistic director in the San Francisco Gate article published on December 1st. Considering this, the choice to present Danzón – a work that depicts the arc of life from birth to death – emerged as a relevant piece for the moment.
Created in 1995 Danzón was made in (and to some extent about) Cuba. The word Danzón means dance and it is also a Cuban dance form. Tanztheater Wuppertals piece is one of a series made in response to locations the company travelled on their world tours. This constellation of pieces was at the time critiqued by some as being a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and were less satisfactory then her groundbreaking works. They were thought to reproduce Bausch’s hallmark theater experience without advancing the style she had established.
However at this fertile time in the Bay Area, and at this vulnerable time for the company, this piece re-emerges as a melancholic yet generative marker in the sand. I admire them for having the (unconscious?) confidence to present a shell of her and her work. I receive it as an empty container in and of itself, a landscape which I get to reflect on Bauschs power and facilitation as an artist.
While, Mercy stated “She would never have wanted to believe that she wouldn’t continue to change”, the reality is that this work may show the limits of Bausch’s expression. And the company’s visit gives us a chance to celebrate that.
Throughout this piece, as the women shriek, and the ill fitting ball gowns flow, I experience such gratitude to her hallmark style which emerges through this minor work, perhaps precisely because it is not ground breaking. It is Bausch’s reliable aesthetic that shines through; her legacy.
How can we celebrate something that does not innovate, yet still inspires? How do we honor it as our heritage, as a reflection of home? The work is an deep resource that relates to work happening here on the West Coast, uniquely. How is the Bay Area moving this cultural heritage forward?
Bausch’s work hardly made it to England in the 80s and 90s (where I grew up). Nonetheless I am very familiar with her work, tracking it as soon as I got to an age where I could find and use contemporary performance libraries and train abroad. I had not seen Danzón before, but the style of the show is typically Bausch. I am lulled by a familiar feeling of oceans of (e)motion, mixed up with strange nostalgia. Experiencing nostalgia is particularly queer, because the images I see on stage feel like my memories, but are not, of course. The piece transitions from birth to death. In the adolescent section of the piece, Bausch gives us a number of flirtatious ‘memories’,
as illustrated in this note about the performance: “We are taught, for instance, in Danzón that the best way to practice kissing is to cut an orange in half. The eyes must be closed, and the tongue goes inside… A blindfolded man wheels flirtatious naked women in bathtubs off stage, he can’t see them, and we can’t either as they discreetly hide, making everything sweeter and all that much more alluring.”
Despite this not being my adolescent experience, the memories feel familiar. And even beyond the fictitious feeling of my personal “memory” being activated, the performance itself is making me nostalgic for other Bausch performances I have seen. The strange feeling of being tried, and touched, in an expanse of time is something I suddenly recognize that I only experience in her performances. Bausch calls out, even in death, for a surrender to the trance of her work whether it creates meaning, boredom, or excitement.
One performer charges on from the wings to front center stage and asks us “do you know what to do in the case of fire?” and before we have time to consider an answer, She says “me neither!” gleefully walking offstage, as another performer walks boldly to the back of the stage, and casually sets fire to the curtains! As the flames burn alarmingly higher, Mercy dances an urgent anguished solo.
And suddenly I feel at home! It’s so great to see the performers on stage; they feel like family. ‘The Cafe Muller woman’, ‘Death’ from ‘The Rite of Spring’, ‘Bluebeard’ the woman from ‘Carnation’, they have acted as benchmarks and inspirations in professional artistic development globally.
A Family Tree Moment.
What we are witnessing is the ongoing process of Bausch’s aesthetic becoming classic. As it crystalises in the present moment it brings into focus the current Bay Area performance scene and its future, and simultaniously illuminates a shared past, which starts a generation earlier.
Wigman established the Dresden school, which Bausch’s teacher/mentor/collaborator Kurt Jooss had a strong, if complex relationship with. Wigman also established the New York Wigman School (later the Hanya Holm studios), thus making her a key ambassador in the cultural relationship between expressionism in the US and Europe.
Bausch embodied Wigman’s expressionist legacy in a specific way, utilizing alienation techniques that resonate with practitioners in the Bay. So although Wigman is the shared heritage, Bausch is the key embodiment of expressionism that is culturally relevant to the links between the current Bay Area performance artists and current central European performance artists.
There are hardly any contemporary dance artists in Europe who have not been directly influenced by her innovations. To name a few in the cultural heritage which I come from; Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Meg Stuart, Sasha Waltz, David Zambrano, Jerome Bel, Tom Plischke, Lilia Mestre, Les Ballets C de la B, Needcompany, Jan Fabre. This roll call makes up diverse set of artists which I ask you to indulge me roughly lumping together because of how obviously they carry on Bauschs reductionist aesthetic (Andre Lepecki calls this ‘exhausting dance’ and extrapolates it into a movement) and interest in the audience performer relationship.
Bausch draws attention to performer/audience relations in Danzón; the performers state “I am here, and you are there” to the audience, and to each other. Its a reoccurring statement, illuminating the critical boundary that facilitates theatrical exchange.
Of the thousands of ways that the next generation in Germany and central Europe reflected and innovated on the audience performer exchange, Deufert&Plischke come to mind because they have an equally non emotional, theoretical and formal approach to the investigation (rather than say, The Living Theater approach in the US, which is more liberated in ethos).
Plischke wrote about his performances “affect” and “re:sort” in conversation with the theorist Elke van Campenhout where the audience and performers have unusual relationship, more like a shared critical space of thinking and activity: “if we gather for a performance, every momentary created element is part of the social or communicative system that we set up together”. (performance magazine frakcija – zagreb)
This is one of many ways they conceive of the audience/performer economy, engaging with it theoretically. I am not claiming that Bausch initiated the 20th Century interrogation of audience/performer relationship, but rather that her theoretical and aesthetic rigor informed a specific quality with which artists moved forward with these critical questions and investigations. From my experience both performing in and being audience to Plischke and Deufert work, I relate that (as you may know) the interrogation of the performer/audience relationship is constantly staged and reformulated, (as Bausch does) with depth and formalism.
A few of those French artists whose heritage can be traced to Bausch (the ones more obsessed with theory) are often called ‘post structuralists’. Keith Hennassy offered a lecture on this in June 2010 at Kunstoff Arts in San Francisco, presenting ways in which some of them can be thought of together.
These artists, in their own way, carry on Bausch’ traditions of German expressionism with alienation, innovation and liberation.
Over in the Bay area, Mary Wigman’s body of thought and experience is traced to the West Coast through Ruth St. Denis and the Hanya Holm studios to Anna Halprin, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Sarah Shelton Mann. Like resonant markers, these women carry an evolving somatic attitude to abstract expressionism in dance and performance.
Being more specific, a community of contemporary makers in the Bay who are coming into focus are those involved with the THEOFFCENTER, an organization that fosters and produces queer performance and run by Ernesto Sopprani. Robert Avila, a respected SF art writer and critic, mapped this scene for the Bay Guardian in april 2011.
Practitioners from this community (and generally in The Bay) often establish or sustain themselves by traveling for work; their careers span between California and Central Europe. To name a few; Keith Hennessy, Jess Curtis, Kira Kirsch, Hana Erdman, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Jesse Hewit, Laura Arrington, Myself. And the artists that stay here are still informed and interested in European aesthetic, such as Honey McMoney, Macklin Kowal, Harold Burns, Philip Huang. Although it is partly practical economics that motivates practitioners to travel far to create work and teach, there is a unique harmony with the culture of dance and performance between the Bay Area and Central Europe which makes for a fertile exchange.
So if thats a rough family tree mapped through Bausch, how do the different geographies and trends in the different areas uniquely inform the work of the next generation in the two places?
Bausch’s embodiment of the Wigman aesthetic is unique, and of great relevance when examining the relationship between Central European and Bay Area Artists. I think the relationship can be tracked by examining relative conceptions of the body, and the specific mixture of alienation with expressionism.
While freedom (abstractly) is a critical project for both bodies of expressionist work, our cultures think of the body and its potential differently. Firstly, in the Bay the body can be a portal, rather then a container as it has traditionally been in European expressionism. Secondly, both the next generation in Europe and the Bay Area use a “manically charged present” (Phelen 1993) in performance as a strategy of alienation, and this curbs our utopic presentations of freedom. This we have inherited from Bausch, but honed its quality to make it culturally our own. So our conception of the body is different, but we share a self concious celebration of expressionism.
OK, lets back up a second, and think more about conceptions of the body. Let me explain myself;
Pina Bausch is a post modern expressionist, whose work incorporates intense emotional experiences, which the audience is distanced from through techniques including repetition or humour. She uses repeated gestures in Danzón like an adult baby sucking his thumb in a giant diaper. This image revisits us throughout the piece, and the baby is crawling across the stage at unexpected moments. It taps into our unconscious experience of physically and emotionally being in the world.
Royd Climenhaga explained in his book “Pina Bausch” how the choreographer uses Gesture like this thumb sucking and crawling in her work to tap into our emotional experiences in our bodies; “Gesture becomes a potent tool in the inter-relationship between image and movement; showing how both come from an emotional and personal source”
Insisting on the public staging of the emotional body as it intersects with societal modes imposed on the physical body is a specific kind of expressionism. Expressionism is Bausch’s way of embodying Wigman’s legacy of freedom through dance. However Bausch continually brings us back to the here and now, her liberation does not send us into fairy tales, and other worlds. We are grounded back again and again in the body.
She has alienation techniques which she uses to ‘ground us’ back in the body; repetition, and an insistence on the ‘here and now’. And these are her methods of charging the present moment to a level of almost painful intensity; Phelens “manically charged present”.
In Danzón, a line of women sitting on chairs sideways from the audience strike a flame from cigarette lighters, and then sit on the flame to put it out, squealing as they do so. The line of performers repeats this again and again. The repetition itself takes the expression out of the movement, making it seem mindless, and slightly psychotic, and reminding us that we are watching performers executing a choreography (repetition is a classic technique of Bausch which Jeremy Peyton Jones calls “accommodating the threat of the machine”), thus bringing us into the here and now, the reality of being in a staged performance.
Andre Lepecki beautifully articulated how this insistence on the here and now is carried on in the next generation of European choreographers. In 1988 he wrote that European contemporary choreography has “a problematics of presence that is ontologically unprecedented in this art form”. These choreographers are rehearsing a subjectivity for dance that typifies what Phelan calls the “ontology of performance” as that which implicates the present by means of presence. Jerome Bels self titled piece “Jerome Bel” is a perfect example of how reductionist aesthetics brings attention to the present moment and gives us time to reflect on the nature of theater itself. The dancers in that piece are naked and construct their histories and the spectacle itself in front of our eyes. For an excellent portrait of how Jerome Bel interrogates the very medium he uses as he works through it, see this Article in The Guardian.
Insistence on the present moment through this “ontology of presence” is another alienation technique. A new way of being liberated by being in the here and now, but also alienated from fantasy because of the practical nature of real time that we share.
This “ontology of presence” is a modern alienation technique which both Central European and Bay Area practitioners have developed after Bausch, but which they use in a different way.
In my work, the gaze between the audience and performers charges and brings attention to the present moment. I developed this extensively in my last piece “reception”, a piece on four men, where we worked with the Baroque notion of perception being a process of light flowing out from the eyes and illuminating whatever you looked at. This gaze charged the present moment, shared with the audience, forcing us to acknowledge the exchange between performer and audience that is at the heart of theater.
Reductionist artists like Philip Huang here in the Bay similarly draw attention to the presence and the very work of the artist as part of his staged pieces. His provoking work generally takes place on the street and on video from his house, and is shared online. We are often reminded during the works that he is an artist that is creating liberated form institutions and delusions of fame, and just working. To be experiencing his work at the same time as being reminded that we are experiencing his work complicates the pieces. It makes them about identity and ontology of presence, as well as his various political agendas. However his work looks extremely different to Bausch. It is a different way of staging an ontology of presence.
Bauschs alienation techniques is part of the heritage for this ontology of presence. Her work stages the body as a container for expression that oscillates between being a subject or an object. At one point in Danzón a woman lies down on a table, and receives a massage from a smart man in a suit. The audience can easily and happily project their bodies into her subjective sensual experience; it feels lovely. Then the massage starts to get increasingly violent, as another suited man joins in the massage, and though we are still half in the body the woman is now being literally pulled forward and backwards on the table, careering from one end to the other. Eventually, we start to reel out of the somatic experience, and observe her body as an object being hauled about by smiling smart men in the name of her desire.
While staging an alternation between subject and object is a classic post-modern alienation technique, this specific duality between body as a subjective experience, with transcendent capabilities, and body as a political object is one that has particular resonance here in The Bay.
Sarah Shelton Mann’s teaching and performances inspire liberation and healing through the moving body. Mann’s practice is split between performance making and somatic healing. The body is cast as a portal for transcendance, as well as a political object.
Famously, Bausch wrote that what interests her as a choreographer working with bodies is “not how people move, but what moves people”. She sees the body as a container of essential experience (what moves people), out of which dance and expression flows.
There is a distinction between thinking about the body as something which fosters experience, versus thinking about the body as something which initiates experience. In Bausch’s work, the body is an object which becomes subjectified through movement. When we think about the body as a portal in Mann’s work, the body becomes a doorway for undefined experience. Something lived in verses, something one moves through.
When you look at the wider Bay Area culture of the body (queer culture, sex positive culture, tattoo and body modification culture, extreme sports, alternative healing) conceiving of the body as a portal of experience makes sense.
This singular generation of Bay Area Artists are incorporating the European ontology of presence, but without losing its somatic heritage and idea of liberation through the body. This creates a very specific tension in pieces where the body can be a portal with potential transcendent properties, but also aware of itself as an intense collection of signs and symbols that have political and social significance. The transcendence is at once profound and self parodying. Performance makers in The Bay are dancing on that line of the body as an experience and the body as a simple object; putting transcendence and the body as a mass of textures on stage, and laughing at themselves doing it. And its in this way we are resonating with the Bausch legacy.
In 2009 I created and performed a solo piece entitled “bird and person dining”. In it, I staged an ontology of presence with the possibility of a flickering identity in a very stripped down theater and a very stripped down body.
The solo embodies the desire for other-worldliness, referencing unseen things. The performance style is nostalgic and expressionistic, yet I curb this expression with various alienation techniques. Firstly nudity and secondly drawing attention to the very texture of the body, forcing us all to expand our sensory experience of the space, but reducing the spectacle. While operating in a slightly magical liminal space, I am reducing the body to its material, to its real shape, to its basic movements, to an essential experience of humanity.
This solo encapsulates the European/American tension between liberated utopic expressionism and self consciousness. It resonates in both countries, presenting the body simultaneously as a texture and a portal.
Artful reduction is critical to Artists who work around THEOFFCENTER. Reduction is an alienation technique offsetting the romantic expressionism which is more prevalent in other dance and performance companies in the Bay.
Liz Tenuto did a 10 minute solo in Arrington’s work incorporating holotropic breath work, which Arrington first experienced in a workshop by Keith Hennessy. During this extremely dynamic solo, Tenuto virtuosically and insistently pushed her breath and the exhausting movement to sustain an apparent state of transcendence, pumping energy and breath through her. I am instantly on board. My body is escalating with hers, and when she looks out at us, with glittering eyes, breathing hard, my heart is touched. Arrington places this action within a complex set of ironic and distancing frames so that at no point am I ever allowed to forget the humour of this intensity, the cliché of the affection, that sometimes seems like an affliction.
The final scene of Hewit’s piece had the cast sitting on stage, and slowly stripping out of their elaborate costumes (designed by Dia Vergados). The cast quietly sat on chairs naked, and picked and pulled at their bodies in a dispassionate way. What we are watching here is a personal daily practice; at once domestic and almost dull (just like I so often feel with Bausch), and yet, perhaps otherworldly; a grounding reduction of the body to material. Hewit is slowing us down, forcing us to look at the reality of the body as a texture. Inviting us to look beyond the cluster of signs and symbols and associations, the economies of desire that are projected onto the bodies we see, to look further than that to the body as a material, or as a machine, of which we make an inventory. Its a way of focusing us entirely on the present moment. It is his ontology of presence.
In my work, and through that lens, in the work of Hewit and Arrington, there exists a complex set of distancing processes, but an insistence on embodiment, and technical virtuosity. Oscillating between Central European and US West coast notions of the body as a utopic project, and the body as a texture or object, the contemporary artists in this Bay Area scene are weaving Bausch’s pioneering heritage right into the heart of their identity. So the next generation can utilize Bausch as a classic, as a benchmark, as a pioneer, as an inspiration which they can reclaim, and mess with and honour and celebrate. Bausch’s Danzon reminds us performance makers, here, to cherish irony, mundane tasks and self awareness within our continuing projects of staging the body as a project of liberation.
Bausch’s expansive solo at the end of Danzón, danced in Berkley by a graceful and serious Ales Èuèek is beautiful, and also at times boring. (S)he disappears next to the huge video of fish behind her. It is a melancholic space that she creates in this piece, a shell of her, and her work. Her work has become a container, a talking point, a harbour. And there is some sadness in that. But within the nostalgia of the echoes of her and her work, this piece is also a celebration with traces of intimacy and relentless relations. It’s a time for us to articulate our cultural relationship to emotional expressionism, and look at the unique ways we embody it here in the Bay. Bausch leaves behind a landscape of longing, and a legacy to inhabit and fill with desire.
Tessa Wills. Tessa is a a choreographer and live artist with some success behind her as an artist and arts leader in Brussels, London and Vienna. She has chosen to live in San Francisco because of the sensuality of the city. Her background comes from Music through Ballet and Contemporary dance training to Live Art, and now moving back into an interrogation of dance, and its inherent value/not. Her current concerns in practice are around wounds, punctures, liminality and the movement organizational principles of birds. Recently Tessa has completed the solo, “bird and person dyning” performed at Too Much!, a commission for the Meridian Gallery, Union Square San francisco called “flicker/follow”, and an 11 minute dance film funded by the British Council called “mine/scratch/mine”. She is leading a Bay area dramaturgy group to investigate and reflect the cultural identity of the Bay Area in an international context. She recently completed her Masters in Choreography from the University of Middlesex, and participated in Counterpulses ‘summer specials’ program in August 2011. In June 2012, Tessa will Artistically Direct “This Is What I Want” a performance festival centered around desire. She is a current rehearsing to be parts of Mica Sigourney’s Masterwork as part of the Artist in Residence Program at CounterPulse.
Tessa with your thoughts and comments. Video of “bird and person dyning” on request.
“Pina” the 2009 Movie by Wim Wenders is playing from the 20th of January at Kabuki Theater for five days only.
Special thanks to Macklin Kowal, Ernesto Sopprani, Lauren Crow, Sam Clegg and Neon Weiss.