Agent provocateur

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Pina Bausch blazed new paths in contemporary dance. Sadanand Menon remembers the choreographer and her passion for Indian sounds and forms

Pina Bausch
Pina Bausch (1940 – 2009)

HISTORY IS sure to rate Pina Bausch as one of the greatest artists of our time. The 68-years-old artist, who passed away in her home town of Wuppertal, Germany, on June 30, erupted on the international scene as a choreographer in 1968. In the subsequent 40 years, virtually rewrote the path that contemporary dance, body movement and choreography would take.

The end came barely five days after she was diagnosed for cancer. It is unbearable now to think that across premier international dance fora, this thin, gaunt, deeply troubled, chain-smoking and forever creative persona would be missing, after having contributed over 35 provocative dance-theatre productions and films, each of which pushed the frontiers of artistic body expression to a new limit.

Pina (short for Phillipine, her maiden name) influenced contemporary choreographers the world over – from the German Sasha Waltz to the Taiwanese Lin Hwai Minh; from the American Meryl Tankard to the British Lloyd Newson. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar too contributed to her popularity by using liberal footage from Pina’s works in his 2002 film Talk  to Her. The footage was from her landmark productions Café Muller (1978) and Masurca Fogo (1998).

Trained in both, the American music hall dance forms and the modern dance tradition of choreographers like José Limón, Antony Tudor and Paul Taylor of the Juilliard School, as well as the German expressionist dance theatre epitomised by Kurt Jooss in the Folkwang Tanzschule, Essen, she incorporated her own variety of ‘found movements’, unusual stage material and silky dresses. The dancers on stage represented an essential freedom, which became her own lasting signature even as she brought on stage a baby hippo (as in Arien) or German shepherd dogs (as in Nelken).

Pina’s first performance tour in India was in 1979 with The Rite of Spring, when her company performed in five cities and ran into some trouble at the last venue, in Kolkata, due to a fleeting glimpse of nudity in the performance. The Bengali bhadralok were roused to frothy indignation. It left a bad aftertaste. But it launched Pina’s continuing interest in India and its sounds, colours, forms.

Her Bamboo Blue is a homage to the mundu worn in Kerala, which no Indian artist has employed to such effect

Her next performance tour of four Indian cities happened 15 years later in 1994, with the robust, witty, dynamic and politically radical Nelken (Carnations). As you entered the auditorium, you saw a stage covered with 8,000 carnations. The flowers were specially manufactured with material that could resist damage from being trampled underfoot by the 22 dancers. By the end of the show, the flowers lay flattened – a poetic statement on loss of innocence and against the brutalising consequence of power and control.

At the conclusion of Nelken, each dancer walks frontstage, sits down in a group-photo assemblage, and announces why s/he became a dancer. The final dancer in that group of 22 proclaimed: “And I became a dancer, so that I would not be a soldier.”

Almost another 15 years later, in January 2008, her latest work Bamboo Blue, was premiered at the NSD’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav, at Siri Fort, Delhi, and later in Mumbai and Kolkata. Seemingly mellow, the new work almost suggested dance as a path to reclaiming roots, location and identity in a globalised world rapidly hurtling towards an impoverishing cultural homogenisation.

Bamboo Blue is ‘India-inspired.’ Pina’s passionate involvement with India — its diversity of forms, music, dance, performance, textiles, cuisines, dress codes — began soon after the 1994 tour. Over the past decade, she had been quietly travelling on ‘research holidays’ to India, particularly to Kerala. In Bamboo Blue, it shows. The work is a homage to the mundu that women and men wear and the constant play with it – double folding, hitching, flipping, tucking and so on in ceaseless variations. No Indian artist has employed the mundu before to such effect.

The other association with India that Pina graciously acknowledged, in the program note to Bamboo Blue, is her association with the “legendary dancer Chandralekha.” This is a unique acknowledgement. Dancers are otherwise notorious for unabashedly pinching from each other’s works. It is unheard of for one dancer to acknowledge another contemporary dancer. What Pina did, therefore, set a precedent.

Chandra and Pina first met in 1988, in Wuppertal, where she lived and worked since the 1970s with her company Tanzetheatre Wuppertal. Chandra was on a tour with her celebrated production Angika. The audience gave her 17 curtain- calls over 20 minutes. Later at dinner, Pina assured Chandra that 17 curtain-calls were unusual even for the highly dance-literate audience of Wuppertal. One could see that instant ‘kimochi’ (Japanese for bonding) happening.

In 1994, it was Georg Lechner, the then-head of Max Mueller Bhavan, who facilitated the combined tour of Pina and Chandra in India – Pina with the mind-blowing Carnations and Chandra with the deeply erotic and sensual Yantra.

They travelled and stayed in the same hotels, performed on the same stages and spent nights talking about art and life. It was an understated friendship which really did not require words. They met on many occasions in later years, seeking solace in the knowledge of each other’s existence.

As the ‘lights designer’ for Chandra’s work, I too got to know both Pina and her equally brilliant stage designer Peter Pabst. I was at the press conference in New Delhi, conducted by Dr Lechner, where he tried hard to make her admit that she was, essentially, a German artist. Pina refused to respond, blowing smoke-rings instead. When the same question came a third time, she put her cigarette aside, looked him in the eye and said, “Georg, had I been a bird, would you have called me a German bird?” The large number of press people present applauded.

Chandra saw Pina as a philosopher and a politically radical artist. During the 1994 tour, everyone wanted to know what was common between the two artists, and Chandra used to say, “Everything is common between us. She’s relevant in her context and I, in mine.” It was an important statement because Pina received over US$ 3 million annually in official grants for her work, while Chandra received nil grants from the Indian cultural establishment. So their scale of work could not be compared. In impact, however, both held their own.

The other common link between them was that both held strong political views, which is rare among dancers. Through their work they tried to communicate the politics of the body. Chandra said, “My primary concern is with what is happening to the body in our times; dance just happens”. And Pina had once famously said: “I’m not interested in how people move; I’m interested in what makes them move.”

There was no Chandra, in 2008, bounding across stage after the performance to offer Pina a flower, as she had done in 1994. But Pina told me after the Delhi performance of Bamboo Blue, “Chandra is alive for me and I think of her every day”. And Chandra is sure to have giggled infectiously as Pina’s dancers once again stormed the Indian stages.

The reason one loves Pina Bausch as an artist and choreographer is because, at the end of almost every one of her performances, a large part of the audience jumps to its feet to applaud, even as they exclaim, “That was fantastic; but for heaven’s sake, will someone explain what it was all about?”

Pina will continue to retain her place in the universe of arts as an agent provocateur who, even as she provided us with unforgettable images, vignettes, visuals and fragments, simultaneously challenged all received notions of beauty, form, unity, context or the comfort of a movement repertoire. Steadily, relentlessly, for 40 years, she conducted a guerrilla war at the borders of meanings and certainties.

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