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in Filmmaking
on Jul 6, 2009

I missed the news that the astonishing German choreographer Pina Bausch died on June 30. From a lovely appreciation by Mark Swed:

She became associated with big spectacles that were part-theater, part-dance battles of the sexes and society played out in extravagant environments. She might litter her stage with zillions of carnations or put her company in pools of water. Her highly sexed world-weary women paraded around in high heels, clothed and nude – just like the men. They beat each other up and the men usually ended up worse for the wear.

Everything always looked amazing – costumes, sets, lights and, of course, movement. Just as Bausch gave out cookies in rehearsal to relieve pressure, she came up with startling ways to do the same thing in her work. A dancer in a crazed rage would suddenly burst out in a wonderful laugh.

Bausch’s work was loaded with metaphors, but what they meant exactly wasn’t entirely clear. Aggression unleashed inexplicable strangeness, and strangeness turned into ravishing beauty.

And from Alastair Macaulay in the New York Times:

Masochism was a recurrent feature in Bausch theater: you would see not only dancers tormenting another dancer (holding cigarette lighters to the soles of feet, for example, or pelting a face with tomatoes) but also the degree to which the victim was complicit in his or (usually) her suffering. Unusual among non-ballet artists of recent decades, there was little or no gender neutrality in her work: the differences between men and women were central and a subject for drama.

No single label will do. Ms. Bausch was not just a green artist protesting the desecration of the environment (though that was a powerful element in her works) or a feminist depicting the opposition between women’s pain and their social conformism (though that was evident) or an expressionist emitting rage at aspects of the socio-political status quo (though the intensity of that feeling was unmistakable). In some of her pieces she seemed to be celebrating the charm of the world, not just mourning its erosion. And she was often funny.

And from Judith Mackrell in The Guardian:

Bausch believed passionately in choreography but her works were not primarily about dance. She wove her material out of movement, speech, theatrical imagery and music, often starting out with no more than a feeling. She worked closely with her dancers, drawing on their own fantasies and experiences; in her darkest works, Bausch was famously accused by New Yorker critic Arlene Croce for indulging in a “pornography of pain”. Not only did her productions feature brutally explicit confessionals, with the dancers spewing out shocking revelations of misery, hatred or desire, some of the choreography was so angry and dangerous that the performers seemed quite literally at risk of damaging themselves.

It was a formula that many choreographers imitated, but few came even close to achieving. There was a combination of terror, beauty, strangeness and even bawdy comedy in the worlds that she and her designers invented, from The Rite of Spring, in which the floor of the stage was covered in dark peat, to Nelken, where it was carpeted with carnations. In Victor, 20ft walls of mud flanked the dancers, so that they appeared like a lost tribe unearthed in an archaeological dig. It was the monumental magic of Bausch’s productions that inspired and won assorted devoted followers including stage directors such as David Alden and film directors such as Federico Fellini and Pedro Almodóvar.

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