February and March is International Arts Festival time in Hong Kong which draws its repertoire from across the globe. One regular visitor every few of years is Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary and this year they will be performing Iphigenia in Tauris which is one Bausch’s earliest works from 1973.
I love this company’s work and alway take myself and my students when they are in town. Prior to their run here they have been performing in London with another piece, 1980. Their appearance in the UK has generated a number of articles that I thought would be worth sharing here. I’ll start with a comment piece by Lyn Gardner for The Guardian which says everything about the genre and why it works for me and my students, who are invariably enraptured by this style of work.
What’s it all about? In theatre, it’s sometimes best if you don’t know
As Tanztheater Wuppertal’s 1980 proves, theatre is at its most potent when it doesn’t offer answers
Somebody once asked the dancer Anna Pavlova what she meant when she was dancing. “If I could tell you that,” she replied, “I wouldn’t dance it.” Theatre’s most thrilling evenings often come cloaked in ambiguity. Too much certainty is embalming in the theatre. It leaves nobody – writer, choreographer, performers, audience – with anything left to discover. I like leaving the theatre feeling as uncertain as when I went in. After all, the world and humanity are too complex and messy to explain easily and tie up in ribbons in a couple of hours.
The performances I most distrust are the ones that tell me emphatically what to think, where the playwright inserts a speech (usually somewhere towards the conclusion so we don’t forget it) that instructs as to what exactly the previous two hours have been about. Sometimes the director does it in an essay in the programme instead. I also distrust those performances that seem simply designed to confirm everything we already know about the world and ourselves. Plays that are “about things” are often really journalism in another guise.
The great Robert Holman once told me that one of the glorious things about writing plays was uncovering in the very act of writing the things that you didn’t know that you knew. With a very good play or an astonishing performance, that can be just as true for the audience too. In the act of listening and watching we suddenly hear a distant chime that reminds us of something we had forgotten or buried; glimpse a ghost version of ourselves; or unexpectedly discover something we didn’t know we knew or felt.
Pina Bausch’s extraordinary and unmissable 1980 – surreal, truthful, mysterious, witty, heart-breaking and painful – is like that. In some ways it is as secretive as an oyster, but it is so emotionally textured and dramaturgically open that the vast stage becomes like a massive mirror of memory, endlessly reflecting our own childhoods, our own griefs and terrifying sense of fragility, and our own ludicrous and absurd way of preening and presenting ourselves to the world in the face of our own mortality. The stage is like the mind itself, sometimes focused and at others surfing wildly. There are interesting things going on all around the edges, as in life. You never quite know where to direct your attention, or where you should look.
The choreographed space between the bodies is as eloquent as the bodies themselves, and the space between stage and audience so fully alive that it invites us to lean forward to hear those chimes and watch those ghosts walk. At the end of three-and-a-half hours, I had no idea at all what it was supposed to mean, but like a frightened child in the dark began to sense and grope towards the light and all the things it meant to me. The show, and the performers, exposed and opened themselves up and invited us to share their uncertainty. In theatre, that’s a rare, brave gift. We should take it when it’s offered.
Also in The Guardian were two other pieces.The first, by Chris Weigand, Performing Pina Bausch’s 1980 – in her dancers’ words, is an interview with three of the performers and the second, ‘She made you feel thrilled to be human’ is by actress Fiona Shaw who saw Bausch’s first London performance.
If you are not familiar with her work (or even if you are) Sanjoy Roy wrote Pina Bausch: clip by clip dance guide for The Guardian, back in 2009, which is definitely worth a read and watch. Some of the original clips referenced in the article have been removed from YouTube, but a little search will find them posted elsewhere on the site.
Sanjoy Roy is a prolific writer an all things dance/dance theatre and his own blog Sanjoy Roy Writing On Dance etc is worth a visit on any number of practitioners. I particularly like his Step By Step Guides to famous and iconic choreographers and companies, and his one on Pina Bausch is a great digest of her work.
Tanztheater Wuppertal tour widely across the globe and I thoroughly recommend you go if they come to a theatre near you.