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Woman, man, dog, tree: two decades of intimate and monumental bodies in Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater: Gabrielle Cody
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Figure 38.1 A woman rests on the backs of male dancers in Pina Bausch’s Nur Du (Only You, 1996),
her ﬁrst work created in the United States.
guests, hungry for the emotional carnage we are about to witness. Now another woman in
an evening gown appears. But Helena Pikon does not ﬁt into her dress like a hand in a kid
glove. Pikon’s anorexic body convulses, spasmodically exposing a boy’s chest as she tries to
expiate her unspeakable trauma and escape the large stage enclosure. She runs, she falls, she
moans. When a man in a tuxedo enters, he tries to keep her down. He shouts at her in
French to stop crying, and hits her. Shortly after, another woman in an evening gown enters
and urinates in a corner of the stage. Then another man in a tuxedo screams at her and rubs
her nose in the urine. Men are also subjected to greater and lesser public humiliations by the
women, and by other men.
Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater, now in its second decade, is famous for its depictions
of the violence in the relationship between the sexes, the plight of the individual subjected
to annihilating institutional authority, and the anguish inherent in attempting to enter the
physical memory of childhood. Her dancers’ brutal encounters occur in vast, neohistorical
compounds and are often underscored by popular music from the 1930s and ’40s, perhaps a
mock-nostalgic reference to the deadly world of her parents’ generation, the slick decadence of German fascism. These are some of the codas that critiques of Bausch’s work tend
to enshrine. But what are the vestiges of Bausch’s tracks on the landscape of contemporary
Like Tadeusz Kantor, Marguerite Duras, and Peter Handke, Bausch is interested in the
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drama before language intervenes and choreographs plays which, in many ways, dramatize
the psychic scars Auschwitz and Hiroshima have engraved on the collective imagination. As
she puts it, “I try to ﬁnd what I can’t say in words, although I know it, I am looking to ﬁnd
what it is” (in Kisselgoﬀ 1985: C4). Her productions are noted for their stunning, visceral,
and apocalyptic environments: a stage surface covered with dead leaves (Blue Beard, 1977); a
ﬂooded stage (Arien, 1979); a grass ﬂoor (1980, 1980); a ﬁeld of carnations bending in the
wind (Tanzabend Nelken, 1982); a concrete wall that crumbles onstage (Palermo, Palermo,
1990). The setting of Two Cigarettes in the Dark, ﬁrst produced in 1985, is composed of three
gigantic glass cases inlayed into proscenium walls. One is ﬁlled with water and goldﬁsh, the
second with exotic fauna, and the third with desert sand and cacti. In a more recent piece,
Nur Du (Only You, 1996), the stage is transformed into a transplanted forest of redwoods.
The function of this bottled naturalism is hauntingly commemorative. Nature is artiﬁcially
(and some might argue, morbidly) preserved in these lush wastelands. Animals also make
their way into Bausch’s surreal landscapes, but only to highlight the human body’s mythic
entrapment. Barking German shepherds reined-in by ominous guards patrol the false Arden
of Tanzabend Nelken, recalling images of Nazi Germany. A life-size hippopotamus is desperately wooed by a woman whose love for him is not reciprocated in Arien. A black poodle
appears and disappears in Two Cigarettes, padding gingerly onstage and oﬀ, as if to punctuate
the world’s ﬂippant indiﬀerence to the humiliations taking place onstage.
Figure 38.2 Pina Bausch’s “Dance choir” performing in Tanzabend Nelken (March 1987), on a “ﬁeld of
carnations bending in the wind.”
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Bausch is leery of sociopolitical explanations for her kinetic phantasms. Her responses to
what have become well-known generalities about her work are always meticulously cautious: “I can only make something very open, I’m not pointing out a view. There are
conﬂicts between people, but they can be looked at from each side, from diﬀerent angles”
(in Hoﬀman 1994: 12), or, “You can see it like this or like that. It just depends on the way
you watch. . . . You can always watch the other way” (in Hoghe 1980: 73). Ideological
motives for her hypernaturalism are equally egregious in light of Bausch’s ostensibly simple
purpose: “I think that this is beautiful: real things onstage – earth, leaves, water” (in Hoghe
Pathways to a new theatre aesthetic
Bausch’s footfalls are at once banal and philosophical, reverent and irreverent routines on
the ground of Being. Her most quoted observations are “I am not so much interested in how
people move as in what moves them” (in Manning and Benson 1986: 43) and “The work . . .
is about relationships, childhood, fear of death, and how much we all want to be loved” (in
Price 1990: 325). One might be tempted at ﬁrst to assume that Bausch is praising pure
feeling over the emotional detachment of formalism; certainly Bausch, among other Germans
of her generation, has re-explored the subjectivist tradition of Ausdruckstanz, the dance of
expression epitomized in the 1920s by the movement choirs of Expressionistic choreographers such as Rudolf Laban, Oskar Schlemmer, Mary Wigman, and Kurt Jooss – Bausch’s
mentor during the 1960s. As Raimund Hoghe puts it, “In the theater of Pina Bausch one can
experience many ways of looking, of becoming aware of one’s subjective way of watching
humans, relations, situations . . .; there are many ways of seeing something within oneself
as well as within others” (1980: 73). But I also suspect that Bausch wants to be taken quite
literally when she speaks of a mise-en-scène based in what “moves” people: that is, what
emotions or psychic wounds physically shape the body’s public and private trajectories,
from what parts of the body is history recalled?
Bausch says only that the stories of her plays are about human relations: “. . . I have tried
to see them and talk about them. . . . I don’t know anything more important” (in Hoghe
1980: 65). Her subjects are people on the street, in everyday life: “The way somebody walks
or the way people carry their necks tells you something about the way they live or about the
things that have happened to them” (in Hoghe 1980: 65). Similarly, idiosyncrasies are what
she searches for in her actors: “I pick my dancers as people. I don’t pick them for nice
bodies, for having the same height. . . . I look for the person . . ., the personality” (in Loney
1985: 14). In brief, Bausch seems to be primarily interested in the choir of her dance
company as an expression of the histories of individual bodies in relation to the larger
cultural history of the body. As Kay Kirchman notes, Bausch’s “genealogy” dramatizes the
multilingual body as text, the body’s discursive potential, the ways in which it is regimented,
controlled, suppressed, betrayed, abandoned, and reformed through history: “The history of
the body is . . . the history of what has been written in this form: as injuries, as hopes, as
disappointments, as any experience at all” (1994: 42). Johannes Birringer suggests that
Bausch’s dialectical theatricality is rooted in social practice: “The borderline in Bausch’s
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tanztheater is the concrete human body, a body that has speciﬁc qualities and a personal
history – but also a body that is written about, and written into social representations of
gender, race, and class” (1986: 86).
[. . .]
From early in her career, Bausch has exposed the power relations inherent in erotic
negotiations, classical dance training, and theatrical representation. By the mid-1970s, she
speciﬁcally inscribes the conﬂict between the sexes (Manning and Benson 1986), and by
the ’80s her work examines gender as a compulsory performance. Bausch’s distancing
techniques are used in large part to explore the power relations of gendered bodies in
representation. Price argues that “[h]er repeated movements signify that behavior between
men and women is learned, culturally coded and determined, and just as inadequate as it is
inept” (1990: 329). Bausch self-consciously uses mimesis as a grotesque form of mimicry
and “undermines the referent’s authority” (Diamond 1989: 62). In Kontakthof, the “signs” of
gender are estranged through countermimicry, when a woman in red inspects one of the
men’s pelvic rotations and does not ﬁnd it seductive enough: “Come on, I know you can do
it, keep working on it,” she says curtly. Not only does Bausch demonstrate that conventional
ballet training is a catastrophic institution that perpetuates the coercive imitation of social
mimesis – the reproduction of the reproduction of learned and culturally sanctioned
gestures – but she also recognizes, as Judith Butler does, that those who fail to “do” the signs
of gender right are punished (Butler 1990). Bausch’s pieces invariably dramatize the notion
Gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender,
and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. . . . This repetition is
at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially
established; it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimization.
(Butler 1990: 277)
Bausch’s plays are fraught with ﬁgures whose site of struggle is the relationship between
their body and culturally sanctioned cloaks of legitimization. Women often tug at girdles
and suﬀer high heels; men are shown to be restless, uncomfortable in the deadly uniformity
of suits and ties. And when men cross-dress, they appear equally endangered. In Two Cigarettes, a man enters in an evening gown but almost immediately takes it oﬀ. He stands in the
middle of the stage in his underwear and high heels unable to move. He ﬁnally removes
the women’s shoes, dons ﬂippers, and enters the aquarium, where he immerses himself in
water. Repeatedly, Bausch entrusts her dancers with what would appear to be the ludicrous
and annihilating exercise of performing gender “well,” that is, of expressing gender as a
correlate of biological sex. In Kontakthof Bausch mercilessly spoofs this “corporeal project”
by requiring her company to face a movie screen on the back wall and view a documentary
ﬁlm on the mating rituals of ducks.
Bausch also calls conventional proxemics into question. Marianne Goldberg describes a
moment in Bausch’s 1984 piece Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört (On the Mountain
a Cry Is Heard) this way:
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In a prelude, the performers run as if terrorized through the area behind the
audience . . . including us in the frame of their action. . . . Suddenly, a gang of men
in white shirts and black trousers brutally force a resisting man and woman
together into a kiss. This scene of enforced sexuality is repeated over and over to a
fanfare of strident, heroic classical music. The grotesque portrayal of phallic/
patriarchal sexuality develops into sadism that permeates the piece. Billie Holliday
sings about a pastoral scene in the American South that is disrupted by the “sudden
smell of burning ﬂesh.” The burning ﬂesh serves as a metaphor for the performers’
display of violence and pleasure in a theatrical marketplace. . . . Sometimes
Figure 38.3 In Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört (On the Mountain a Cry Is Heard, April 1987)
Bausch had the stage covered with dirt, such that the actors grew progressively dirty as
she “explore[d] the genesis of performative acts by examining the power relations underlying representation.”
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vulnerability is tinged with black humor. Two women in ﬂouncy green dresses
perform “innocent” cartwheels that reveal their underwear and sexy little dance
phrases that make them available commodities.
In moments such as these, Bausch openly confronts the complicated motivations of our
desire as spectators and explores the genesis of performative acts by examining the power
relations underlying representation. A woman in Kontakthof asks a male member of the
audience for a quarter in order to ride the electric hobby horse on the side of the stage; this
brief negotiation and her subsequent performance of sexualized passivity – in which she
blankly gazes at the audience as she rocks to the horse’s artiﬁcial cadence – expose the tacit
rules of a representational economy which regards femininity as a compulsory public service. Right before the intermission of Two Cigarettes Mechthild Grossmann comes down
to the audience and repeats in a monotone “ﬁfty cents, cinquente centimes, ﬁfty cents,
cinquente centimes.” We are once again publicly implicated as “members of the economy of
onlookers,” and, as Bausch puts it, “we must look again and again” (in Birringer 1986: 87,
91). Her theatre is diﬃcult and funny precisely because it lays bare the messy, inherently
unequal, and costly business of representation, which, as Peggy Phelan reminds us, “is
almost always on the side of the one who looks, and almost never on the side of the one who
is seen” (1993: 25). If art is made at a cost, then our complicity in its making is what
Bausch, in part, would like us to experience.
As Heiner Müller noted, in Bausch’s theatre, “the image is a thorn in the eye and bodies
write a text that deﬁes publication, the prison of meaning” (in Daly 1986: 56). Bausch’s
dancers acknowledge and often literally confront the audience with physical and psychic
scars, rendering the viewing body culpable for its presence, accountable for what it sees,
painfully aware of its own dissecting eye/I. Bausch asks her performers to play themselves in
scenes based on exercises and improvisations, located around a speciﬁc emotion. Their work
takes place in real time, and through painful exertion. In 1980, a woman skips around the
stage 50 times, repeating the phrase “I am tired” until her body is overcome with exhaustion. In Palermo, Palermo, Francis Viet plays “Stormy Weather” on a sax as votive candles drip
wax onto his ﬂesh. In Bandoneon (1980), a dancer puts veal steaks in her shoes and dances en
pointe as blood oozes out of them. In Gebirge, a man in a leotard and tiara suddenly whips
across the stage stopping only to ask the audience. “Why are you looking at me?” The
performance in Kontakthof consists of a repeated audition; as in a dream, Bausch’s automated
dancers form single-sex “cattle call” lines and auction their bodies oﬀ to us exposing teeth,
proﬁles, arms, and legs. As Manning suggests, these are “images of narcissism and selfdisplay” (1986: 68). But the repeated gestures also refer to the malignant pageant our gaze
helps to produce. Through these hieroglyphic scenes we are momentarily invited into our
collective memory and placed in the role of those who – throughout history – decide which
bodies, or parts of bodies, are expendable. In moments such as these, Bausch seems to be
simultaneously drawing on Artaudian notions of the divided body of Western history – a
primal cry for lost unity – and eliciting Brecht’s much hoped for “tears from the brain.”
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Figure 38.4 Exemplary moments from Two Cigarettes in the Dark (March 1985) and Nur Du (May 1996)
[Figure 38.5] in which Bausch reproduces sadistic or manipulative displays of women and
women’s bodies, a practice criticised by some feminist practitioners and scholars.
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Birringer, Johannes (1986) “Dancing Across Borders”. TDR 30, 2 (T110): 85–97.
Butler, Judith (1990) “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and
Feminist Theory”. In Performing Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, edited by Sue-Ellen Case,
270–82. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Daly, Ann (1986) “Tanztheater: The Thrill of the Lynch Mob or the Rage of a Woman?” TDR 30, 2
Diamond, Elin (1989) “Mimesis, Mimicry, and the True-Real”. Modern Drama 32, 1: 59–72.
Goldberg, Marianne (1989) “Artiﬁce and Authenticity”. Women and Performance 4, 2: 104–17.
Hoﬀman, Eva (1994) “Pina Bausch: Catching Intuitions on the Wing”. The New York Times,
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Hoghe, Raimund (1980) “The Theatre of Pina Bausch”. The Drama Review 24, 1 (T85): 63–74.
Kirchman, Kay (1994) “The Totality of the Body: An Essay on Pina Bausch’s Aesthetic”. Ballet
International/Tanz aktuell Heft 5: 37–43.
Kisselgoﬀ, Anna (1985) “Pina Bausch Dance: Key is Emotion”. The New York Times, 4 October.
Loney, Glenn Meredith (1985) “I Pick My Dancers As People”. On the Next Wave, Brooklyn Academy of
Music 3, 1–2: 14–19.
Manning, Susan and Melissa Benson (1986) “Interrupted Continuities: Modern Dance in Germany”.
TDR 30, 2 (T110): 30–45.
Phelan, Peggy (1993) Unmasked: the politics of performance. London: Routledge.
Price, David W. (1990) “The Politics of the Body: Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater”. Theater Journal 42, 3:
Aggiss, L. and Cowie, B., eds (2006). Anarchic Dance. London: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2002). “Performative acts and gender constitution” in M. Huxley and N. Witts, eds, The
Twentieth Century Performance Reader, 2nd edn. London: Routledge, pp. 120–34.
Carter, A., ed. (1998). The Routledge Dance Studies Reader. London: Routledge.
Climenhaga, R. (2008). Pina Bausch. London: Routledge.
G. Cody (1998). “Woman, man, dog, tree: two decades of intimate and monumental bodies in
Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater,” TDR 42(2), Summer, pp. 115–23.
THE WILL TO EVOLVE
Jane Goodall frames Stelarc’s performance experiments in the context of nineteenth-century
human/machine narratives in which humans fought to stave off extinction in the face of a threatening machine-made rival species. Stelarc, in contrast, she argues offers an alternative scenario:
his solution is to embrace technology, rather than compete with it.
Stelarc’s work as a performance artist has run in parallel with a process of commentary in
which he elaborates on the themes and purposes underlying his experiments: “I’ve from
very early on held the view that we’ve always been prosthetic bodies. Ever since we evolved
from hominids . . . we’ve constructed artifacts, ampliﬁcations of the body. It’s part of what
we are as a human species.”1 The word always runs as a leitmotif in the commentaries,
the themes of which have not changed radically in the last twenty years. Stelarc’s Web
site maintains the archive of his texts and performances as a composite work in progress.
Preoccupied as he is with the obsolescence of the human body, there is no sense that former
stages of his own work ever become obsolete to him. The key concepts underlying it are
all current. An interest in human evolution has remained a constant focus throughout
his career, as has a view that we have brought ourselves to an evolutionary crisis point
by generating a technological environment to which we cannot eﬀectively adapt as a purely
This view contrasts with conventional popular representations of the evolutionary relationship between humans and machines – for example, in Ridley Scott’s ﬁlm Blade Runner
(1982, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) or in the
Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg ﬁlm ..: Artiﬁcial Intelligence (2001), based on Brian
Aldiss’s 1969 story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”). In the prototypical science ﬁction
narrative, technology evolves to the point where a rival species is generated, fuses human
and machine qualities, threatens to become dominant, and so puts biological humanity on
the road to extinction. This is a paranoid scenario, which usually plays out as a drama of
persecution in which organizations of humans rush to destroy the new species before it can
take over. The prototypical narrative here is Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon (1872), the ﬁrst
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work of ﬁction to explore a rivalry between human and machine evolution as a Darwinian
scenario. The novel portrays an isolated community from which all machinic artifacts have
been banned. The reasons for this are revealed in a secret book, to which the narrator is
eventually allowed access. This is what he reads in its opening pages:
There is no security . . . against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness. Reﬂect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the
last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are
advancing. The more highly organized machines are creatures not so much of
yesterday, as of the last ﬁve minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time.
Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some
twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand!
May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in
the end become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them
Fear of obsolescence – of being the losing species in the competition for progress through
adaptive advantage – was already deeply embedded in the culture of the Victorian era.
In the era of advanced electronics and virtual reality, the settings of the narrative have
changed radically, but its underlying logic has changed little. The replicants in Blade Runner
and the androids in .. are also seen as rival species advancing too rapidly for the good
of their makers – as mischief to be nipped in the bud. Such narratives are, perhaps, a
psychologically inevitable accompaniment to the Darwinian view of the natural order.
But how inevitable is this paranoid tendency in our view of ourselves as a species among
others, striving to retain our position of supremacy in the hierarchy of life forms?
In Stelarc’s commentaries, technology is always conceptualized as environmental, never as
a species in itself. The scenario is one in which the human body has moved toward a condition
of potentially terminal unﬁtness or maladaptation because of environmental changes of its
own making, yet at this very crisis point it may discover a radically new evolutionary direction. Competition, the central driver of Darwinian evolution, is not involved here, since the
direction is triggered through multilateral fusions. As he says in an early interview, “Technology, symbiotically attached and implanted into the body, creates a new evolutionary synthesis, creates a new hybrid human – the organic and synthetic coming together to create a
sort of new evolutionary energy.”3 In the world of Erewhon, this kind of speculation is the
inside edge of technoparanoia. “Who shall say that a man does see or hear?” asks the secret
book. “He is such a swarm of parasites that it is doubtful whether his body is not more theirs
than his. . . . May not man himself become a sort of parasite upon the machines?”4
Butler is mixing a narrative of Darwinian ﬁtness and competitive evolution with speculations that are pushing toward another kind of paradigm. While parasitism is a relationship
implying exploitation, with a winner and a loser in the struggle to proﬁt from the environment, the view that everything is interwoven with everything else and that the parasitic
relationship is intrinsically reversible comes closer to Stelarc’s vision of multilateral organic
and synthetic fusion. There are moments when the Erewhonian “Book of the Machines”