Archive for June, 2010

Pina Bausch: a personal memory

She made dance theater out of life


While millions routinely mourn the death of burnt-out pop stars, the death of an artistic genius at her peak at 68 goes largely unremarked in these United States.

Josephine (Pina) Bausch, who died of cancer June 3o, 2009 at 68, was to dance what Brecht was to acting, Wagner was to opera, and Dali to painting. She changed our perception of ballet, of modern dance and of theater. In the nearly 40 years since she became artistic director of Germany’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, Bausch made dance into theater in two to three hour-long evenings. People who sat the same length of time for a play complained her programs were too long. But those are people who need to be told, not shown, who need to look, not see.

Whether in Japan (where she was awarded the 2007 Kyoto Prize for arts and philosophy) or in Italy (where she received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, also in 2007), Bausch was treated like a rock star. Her death was front-page news in Europe’s major newspapers.

Pina traveled the world making dances. Wherever she went, she soaked up the essences of a community and then, as the best artist should, held what she absorbed back up to it like a mirror. In Turkey in 2003 she created Nefes, whose semi-erotic scenes drew us into a dream world that stays in our memory as if we’d been born in Constantinople.

An Arizona interview

In 1996, she made Nur Du (“Only You”) in collaboration with four universities, including Arizona State University in Tempe. And that’s how I had my magical morning with her.

I had flown in to Phoenix on an early October day to interview Pina for an advance story for the Phoenix New Times. I was nervous to meet this woman with her martyred, saintly serene face– and her formidable reputation for being remote and unapproachable.

Before my flight, I went to a farmer’s market and spied some beautiful Dinosaur Egg plums, striated in creamy white and purple. I bought two dozen, thinking to make a gift for Pina and her entourage. Directly from the plane, I met her in a most unlikely place: a desert golf resort in Tempe.

Here, strapping tow-headed dudes in chaps and red neckerchiefs served barbecue and beans to our highly amused group seated at a wood plank table. Sawdust covered the rough-hewn floors. The lighting was basement rec room.

Breaking the ice

After being introduced, I sat tongue-tied for a few moments. Then I remembered the delicate plums I had carried on the plane with me that morning. I withdrew one from the sack and held it out in my palm. Pina’s hands fluttered to her chest as she cried, “For me?”

The ice broken, I asked Pina what she knew about the Southwest. “Really, not very much,” she replied. “I am here to learn.”

“Oh,” I asked, jumping in feet first, “would you like to see a Yaqui Indian town where packs of dogs roam free in the dust, gaunt and taut as your dancers? Where the Yaqui dance their Easter Deer dances? Where they dance the rosary?”

Bausch met each question with the Garbo-esque flutter of hands across her chest.  “Really?” “Could I?” “Where?”

“It’s right down there,” I pointed to a spot in the distance. “We could see the Yaqui Temple tomorrow morning if you like.”

“So close?” she asked, drawing out her vowel.

More than anything, I wanted Bausch to see the inside of the temple where the townspeople keep icons of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I knew that her new work, as inexplicably as anything else in her vast oeuvre, would have an icon of the Virgin– but with the face of a man.

‘I too am a dancer’

The following morning, when we pulled up at 10:30, the temple doors miraculously yawned open to the sight of lit candles colonnaded along the dirt floor.

Adjusting our eyes to the dark interior, we noticed that a local resident had followed us in. I introduced Pina to him, explaining that she was a dancer from Germany.

“I too am a dancer,” he announced defiantly, training his Peyote-red eyes on ours. “I am Richard A. Valencia, head of the Matachini Yaqui dancers. I have 12 dancers. How many do you have?”

Pina’s hands crossed her chest and she bowed slightly, tipping her head as if to meet his height, “I have 28,” she answered apologetically.

Valencia received this information stoically. After Pina gave him a donation to the temple’s new roof fund and invited him and his dancers to her show, we crossed over to DeLeon’s Western Wear, chatting about our kids— she had one son, still in his teens at the time.

At DeLeon’s, a shop crammed with western wear and turista trinkets, Pina spied a basket of Mexican paper flowers and wanted to take some. She had difficulty choosing quickly from the vast palette of colors, so Guillermo DeLeon, a tall, striking man, gallantly flung hundreds of flowers at her feet. Kneeling among them, she picked the colors she wanted.

A journey with stops along the way

A few years later, the Wuppertal Tanztheater returned to Tempe to perform one of Pina’s most infamous pieces, Carnations (Nelken, in German), where the stage is studded with thousands of pink carnations, and four gaunt black mastiffs handled by brawny trainers roam among the dancers.

The day after the performance, most of the troupe had gone up to the Grand Canyon, leaving behind the veteran dancer Dominique Mercy, a Wuppertaler for more than 28 years and one of the world’s most brilliant comedic dancers. He asked if there was a place to swim. I drove him up to Canyon Lake. After his swim we ate pâté and what passes for French bread in Arizona that I had brought along. I told him about the dogs running wild in Guadalupe, the incident with DeLeon and how the carpet of paper flowers he threw out around Pina had reminded me of Carnations.

Nelken is like that,” Mercy said. “Like going through a little journey with little stops along the way. We make theater out of life.” Yes, wherever Pina ventured, dance and theater happened.♦

This originally appeared in Broad Street Review, June, 2009

By Merilyn Jackson

© Merilyn Jackson 2003

Director Lee Breuer and his Mabou Mines crew came over for supper after their last Peter & Wendy workshop/rehearsal at Arizona State University in 1992. It went on to win two Obie Awards and many others around the world.

First to arrive was the great Scots drinker and fast talker, Johnny Cunningham, (Nightnoise; Silly Wizard) composed and played his violin for Breuer’s show, Peter & Wendy. (Check out his brilliant CD on Itunes.) We had grilled salmon, black beans in dark rum, corncakes, and grilled eggplant in balsamic vinegar and a key lime tart. But Johnny ate nothing, having found our liquor supply early. He claimed to have gotten an upset stomach the night before and that only a few shots of tequila would stay down.

At the Pub

Everyone left by 11, so we took Johnny over to the Dubliner Pub. His dirty blond locks fell down between his shoulder blades and he constantly threw his head back like a horse tossing its mane.  He dressed in black with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, but tucked into his jeans. Around the instep of his thick boots were heavy chrome chains, ready for riding or fighting, depending on which came first – a motorcycle or a moron.

At the pub, John sat in with the band for a few tunes, fiddling madly. Back at the table he picked up on the stories he’d been regaling us with at supper. His stories of a  recent gig with Hall and Oates held our attention.

In Vegas

“I was, I mean, there I was, in Caesar’s Palace, down the hall from Elvis Presley’s suite.  Sleepin’ in a huge bed that could’ve slept six.  It was so big they called it “The Four or More.”  So there I was, livin’ the life of Elvis, shit, with a huge sunken tub right next to me bed.  And I had me a wakeup call everyday at 5 PM and breakfast sent up shortly thereafter.

And at the wakeup call, the fuckin’ faucets to the tub go on so when they bring me me breakfast each evenin’ there I am, already in the tub waitin’ for me coffee and me International Herald Tribune. I mean t’say, I was livin’ the life of Elvis, sittin’ on, maybe, the very toilet seat where he’d once sat. And if I went out, the chauffeur would be waitin’ right outside t’take me anywhere.  Angelo was his name.

“Good evening, Mr. Cunningham, sir,” he’d say. “Where to?”

And then, West Virginia

“And then back in the room after the show, Darryl and me and some of the others would wind down. Hall went to his room with his young chippie — can’t be blamed — and there we all were, livin’ the life of Elvis. And when the gig is over I fly off to West Virginia, to this little coaltown college where I’m givin’ a master class and they show me to this little dormitory room with no air conditionin’ a’tall and they hand me sheets to make up me own bed!

“This, after livin’ the life of Elvis!

“I tell you,” he paused to down the fresh Tequila Sunrise that had just appeared before him, “I tell you,” he began again, “What I did was I got them to get me a refrigerator in the room and I unscrewed the fuckin’ light bulb and slept all night with the door of that refrigerator wide open on me. I mean, once you’ve lived the life of Elvis,” he winked, “there’s no turnin’ back.”

John Cunningham: 1957, Portobello, Scotland – 2003, New York, NY

Peter Pan: 1902, United Kingdom –

While the days are still cool, I need to make Barsch Czerwona like my Polish babci did, adding blood red beets to the loamiest of beef stocks I can brew. If I am lucky enough to have some dried white-capped Borowiki mushrooms from Poland, I can make the stock so dark you’d think nothing could penetrate it. But only a few beets redden and lighten the broth, heightening its flavors from the nether regions to ethereal ecstacy. If that seems hyperbolic, just watch someone’s face during the first deep sips. I’ve seen people close their eyes in what seems like prayer.

So at James one recent rainy night before the heat turned us sticky, I ordered the Borscht. Chef Jim Burke deconstructed the ingredients of a very faithful Borscht (the Russian spelling, there are Ukrainian and Lithuanian versions as well) and reconstituted them into a pretty plate painting.  Three rosettes of pale sorrel foam, snuggled inside a curved tangle of wilted bright green sorrel & shredded beef with bright red quartered and steamed baby beets nestled on top. When our server poured the hot dark consomme into my bowl, I nearly swooned from the aroma. It took me back to barschs past, especially to one I drank from the thinnest of china tea cups in a restaurant near Wawel Castle in Krakow…

Posted on Tue, Jun. 1, 2010

By Merilyn Jackson

For The Inquirer

In the Philadelphia/Washington D.C. Exchange concert over the weekend, Anne-Marie Mulgrew and Dancers Company joined with D.C.’s Human Landscape Dance, each presenting two works representative of their companies. Both have a reputation for working in site-specific arenas, each well-known for using parks, walls, even city sidewalks to create a mise-en-scene. In this case they brought their works to the Painted Bride stage, with some mixed results.

Alexander Short and Amanda Abrams performed in two Human Landscape works “January Night” and “Closet Dances.”


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