The Pina Bausch Series – Episode #2: Wuppertal

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In February 2006 I went with α on an adventure to the home of the TanzTheater Pina Bausch: a weird city in the Ruhr called Wuppertal. It was my first anniversary with Pina, one year that she had slapped my face with her extraordinary dance theatre.

Wuppertal is famous for its upside down subway, the Schwebebahn. The train is actually hanging from the rails. It is disturbing to be in there when travelling above the river. The Schwebebahn gives a funny and unique look to the city. I also read in an interview of Pina that Wuppertal has an abnormal number of sects. I can see why people there would be desperate to enrol in something that would give a meaning to their life. It is a gloomy land.

The piece, Kontakthof, was performed in her theatre, an old cinema turned into a live performance space. It fitted her work perfectly. Everything about the place made sense with her. Seeing a show in the choreographer’s natural habitat helped me understand her better.

At the end of the show, when the dancers were bowing, I saw a very long and thin arm in the left wing of the stage. It was her so characteristic arm, recognisable among millions. She was giving directions to the dancers. I was moved to feel her presence, even invisible in the backstage.

The year after, I came back to the Ruhr to take the entrance audition at the Folkwang Hochschule, where Pina Bausch was the head of the dance department.

It was my second attempt. I didn’t even make the first cut, so I found myself alone in the Ruhr with a couple of days to kill.

I managed to find my way to the Zollverein, a sublime and impressive disaffected industrial complex right outside Essen, where they used to exploit the coal mines. The huge structure and machinery are still there but they got all covered with vegetation after the last coal was extracted in 1986. The place has been turned into a cultural complex, there is a museum, performances and other arty things going on.

I got lost alone in this Heterotopia for a whole day. The sun was out. There was no other living soul walking around the beauty of the premises. I adore industrial buildings and I had it all to myself. I felt like the Queen of an abandoned Kingdom. My heart was sinking and swinging between a feeling of immense freedom and images from Germinal by Emile Zola. A lot of human drama must have taken place where I was walking.

The human drama was still perceptible despite the beauty of the architecture, the nature growing over the brick buildings and the vivid light of July.

At this instant, I understood where all the darkness and despair omnipresent in the pieces of Pina Bausch were rooted. She was a child of the Ruhr. She soaked in the atmosphere of the coal mines since she had been born. “The Ruhr was her essence” said one day Pina’s friend Gérard Violette, former director of the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris.

This is exactly what it was. That day, alone in the immensity of the remnants of the 19th century industrial revolution with its flow of hopes and disillusions, I felt the essence of Pina Bausch.

 Zollverein

The Pina Bausch Series – Episode #5: The Pilgrimage

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Throughout 2014, the City of Wuppertal organised festivities to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the TanzTheater Pina Bausch.

As a true Pina disciple, I had aligned all my stars to be present.

I went on an lonely 4-day pilgrimage to pay my respects to the woman who changed my life, and whom I presumptuously think of as my Spiritual Mother.

I arrived in Wuppertal on a grey day of January. The weather was as humid as my heart. I had dragged myself to the airport in tears because my lost love had been stirring the knife in the wound. This is the context in which I re-established connection with Wuppertal, 8 years after my first visit.

Had anything changed or was it conform to my memories?

The city was impregnated with Pina’s presence. Every public building was carrying her mark. The gloomy atmosphere of the Ruhr smelled of her ferocious dance-theatre.

I lived in her trail for 4 days.

I was staying at an isolated hostel up the hill of Wuppertal, in the middle of the woods, almost by myself in the building. An incredibly meditative Pina retreat started.

My loneliness was resonating in my temples. I loved it.

I attended workshops taught by dancers of the company. The first one was held by Nayoung Kim at the dance studio of the Wuppertal Opera. I shivered when I got changed in the dressing rooms used by the Gods of the TanzTheater Pina Bausch. I shivered when I glanced outside the window of the dance studio, thinking that all the cult pieces that shook me on stage had been created and rehearsed with that view.

I shivered all along.

The second workshop was held by a dancer I didn’t know and Malou Airaudo, one of the most emblematic female dancers of the company. Oh My God. Watching Malou. I remember thinking, when looking at Malou Airaudo, that we are all equal as human beings, but some contain so much more than some others. I don’t know. It just feels like the dancers of Pina Bausch contain the whole world and they are yet so fluid and slender. How do they contain that much? They are a different breed of human beings. That’s all I can say to summarise them.

Malou Airaudo is rough but huge-hearted as a teacher. Everything about her screams generosity, starting with her impressive hair. I had already dealt with her at the Folkwang Hochschule auditions. She’s abrupt in an awesome way. You can tell she never had time to beat around the bushes in her demanding dancer’s life. During the technical class, she was correcting us without ceremony. She was showing us movements and was then saying: “And I am 66!” as an evidence of how much more bravery we could use at our young age. It isn’t a matter of age though. It is simply her nature to be ten times as gorgeous as all of us together. Malou Airaudo is pure strength, pure wildness, pure sophisticated yet untamed dance. I rarely saw pure dance from that close.

Then.

I saw a piece at the Wuppertal Opera House, ‘For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. 

I saw exhibitions of photographs, stage props, set sketches, costumes from pieces I had seen or not.

I saw an installation made by the stage designer of the company in the beautiful glass building featured in the tribute movie by Wim Wenders. It was a funny moment. I sneaked in the park where the glass building is located, at the top of a hill above Wuppertal. I had gone all the way up pulling my suitcase. Again, I was completely alone in the park. Everywhere I was going, I was completely alone. A man finally came to me and asked me in German how I had managed to get in, because the park was closed to the public that day. He was kind enough to let me finish my sandwich.

I saw all that could possibly be seen about 40 years of dance theatre by Pina Bausch.

In between the stages of my pilgrimage, I was furtively crying because my lost love had been stirring the knife in the wound.

On the last day, it was time to complete the ultimate mission of the journey. I wanted to go on Pina Bausch’s grave to talk to her and thank her for opening my eyes on what life really is about. I wanted to tell her that her show ‘Nelken’ was the highest moment of my life.

There are at least 7 cemeteries in Wuppertal and it was a true investigation to track the one where Pina was buried (without internet access to make it burningly challenging.) I don’t remember how I put the pieces together, but I found the name of the correct place and managed to find my way to it. Again, it was up a hill and I was pulling my suitcase. (I don’t know why, I often walk alone up hills throughout the world carrying heavy stuff.)

I wanted to put carnations on her grave, as a tribute to ‘Nelken’ (‘carnations’ in German).

There was a little flower shop at the entrance of the cemetery. Flower man had two carnations left. I had 1.50€ on me that I should have kept to take the bus, but well. “How much for the two carnations?” I asked.“One is a bit broken so I can do both for 1.50€”. I smiled. I am sure that Pina was watching the scene. He gave me a map with the path to find her, and he kept my luggage.

I found her resting place easily. Near a pond and tall trees. That’s the closest I ever got to her.

How much do I regret never talking to her, even a few words, never taking a class with her, never exposing my dance to her glance. All those years of adoration until she passed away, I had an anchored certitude that I would end up meeting her some day, even somehow working with her just a bit. It was so obvious that the announce of her sudden death left me hammered and sceptical.

There I was standing on her grave, donating her my two humble flowers which were so small and ridiculous compared to the thousands she had inundated my heart with. How much do I love this woman? It is insane. I love her more than so many people I should morally love more than Pina Bausch.

I wrote her a thank you card with a woman dressed as a man. I cried a moment and asked her how she had dealt with the loss of her love*. It comforted me a little.

It started raining.

I left to catch my plane.

*Rolf Borzik, Pina Bausch’s great love and first stage designer, died of leukemia in 1980.

For further reading about Pina Bausch, see my articles (in French) posted on Toute La Culture, including reviews of Vollmond, Two Cigarettes in the Dark, and Masurca Fogo, a portrait of Pina by those who knew her and a reflection about why female artists, including Pina Bausch, are systematically labelled feminists.

The God Bless You Dunkin’Donuts

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After a long failed day and 3 and a half hours of sofa sleep, I jumped on the F train at 5am with α, direction Coney Island.

We wanted to reiterate the Sunday morning sunrise experience, but actually seeing the sunrise from the beach and not from the highway this time.

It was still dark when we arrived in Coney Island, the fun fair was deadly silent apart from an odd pop music spitting from speakers somewhere. Fun fairs are often scary and depressing but empty fun fairs are scary and exciting. We wanted to jump the fence and sneak in the Ghost House.

We first went in search for coffee to salute the sun with our caffeine intake in the blood. We miraculously found a 24 hour Dunkin’ Donuts. α pushed the door saying “God bless 24 hour!”. The man at the counter was very sweet and slow and we had to explain several times “one everything bagel with cream cheese and one with butter”. He served us and instead of saying thank you or you’re welcome, he was saying “God bless you” in each sentence: “That’s your regular coffee, God bless you”, “One cream cheese bagel, God bless you”, “Here’s your change, God bless you”, “Have a nice day, God bless you”. We named this branch the ‘God bless you Dunkin’ Donuts’.

We walked to the beach and we weren’t sure in which direction to look at to see dawn breaking. I told α : “It is so random where the sun rises”. She looked at me very politely and replied: “Well, technically, it is always east.” I pulled myself together and explained that I have some very specific kind of genius.

While we were waiting for the show with the seagulls, α told me a very good bird story from the time she was living in Delaware in a beach house. After having an argument, she ran to the beach to find some peace of mind. The ocean and the scenery calmed her down, and to enhance this moment of bliss, 2 beautiful white doves flew over and landed close to her. She took it like a sign from the gods and closed her eyes to embrace this instant of plenitude. When she opened her eyes again, the doves had vanished and were replaced, exactly at the same spot, by 2 ugly sick-looking brown seagulls. I peed myself at the anecdote because I thought it sounded like a zen allegory or some wise metaphors from a fortune cookie: ‘You may think you saw a dove but in the blink of an eye a seagull appears.’ How can I ever be depressed with friends like that?

The sun finally rose and we danced and hip-hopped at it, then we walked along the ocean and we talked about having children or not, love patterns, and the Ministry of Silly Walks by the Monty Python.

The ocean was throwing yellow carnations at us. α and I love carnations because of the dance theatre masterpiece ‘Nelken‘ by German choreographer Pina Bausch, our spiritual Mother. It is the first of her pieces that we both ever saw, even before we met each other and before we knew we’d adopt dance theatre as a life style. Pina Bausch is one of the cements of our friendship because we took a very random journey to Wuppertal together to see ‘Kontakthof‘. We were 22 and didn’t know each other very well yet.

So we sat our butt on a rock and I finally showed her the pictures of my pilgrim to Wuppertal last January, when I left a postcard on Pina’s grave signed with our two names.

When our butt was frozen, we took the F train again. α stopped in Brooklyn, I continued to Manhattan to have coffee with β² who was in town only for a day and a half. I haven’t seen him since our Air Waves experience in Reykjavik last year. We met each other in LA last September, then we met again in Iceland a few weeks later, now we have a brief coffee in NYC.

He walked me to the door of the Joffrey Ballet School for my ultimate 5 Rhythms dance class of this chunk of time, and we hugged each other saying: “So, where next?”

I love catching up with people in different places every time.