Breathing the life into the dance

Pina Bausch talks about her latest work 'Nefes' in Tokyo


“I had a hard time finding the title,” Pina Bausch tells me during an interview about her most recent work, “Nefes.” The Turkish for “Breath” is the title of the latest in a series of works which the choreographer, who will turn 65 in July this year, has created in collaboration with theaters around the world, this time with Istanbul’s theater festival.

“Breathtaking” might have been an even more appropriate word; In the scene that opens the piece, dancer Fernando Suels, clad only in a bathing towel, comes to the front of the stage and proclaims in Japanese that “The Hammam is very hot,” before being beaten by his masseur. Then, peering into the cavernous, sparsely lit stage of the Shinjuku Bunka Center, as a woman dressed in flowing silk starts to brush her hair as though she was beating a carpet to the sullen rhythms of Mercan Dede’s music, we need little more to transport us into one of those steamy Turkish bath-houses that feature in so many 19th-century engravings.

But before you’ve had the chance to catch your breath, Indonesian dancer Ditta Miranda Jasjfi (for it was she), who is by now lying on the floor, is wound up in her sari by Suels, who sweeps her up into a Bollywood-style kiss. Minutes later the beat changes and the sylphlike Indian Dancer Shantala Shivalingappa is performing a solo to the sounds of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla — all arms and fingers, like the goddess Kali, tracing millions of butterflies with her infinitely supple digits. As with “Tenchi (Heaven and Earth),” which was researched and set in Saitama and premiered there last year, Bausch’s genius is to use a time and a place as a starting point for a mosaic of dance and dramaturgy: mixing speech and mime; combining the language of formalized dances with improvised expression, the intimacy of shared romantic moments and frustrated attempts at communication.

More than many of Bausch’s other works, Nefes is shot through with sensuality. So, when the female dancers gently squeeze bathfoam over the bare backs of their prone male partners through a large cheese-cloth, you end up asking yourself, “How does that feel?”

“There is an abstraction and it is more about the search for a feeling often,” the choreographer says of what she looks for when she works in foreign countries.

Does this sound too romantic for Pina Bausch? As a choreographer, Bausch is best known for her expressionistic portrayal of human suffering and the darkly humorous weltanschauung (world-view) that permeated German theater and dance both before and after World War II. It is a world-view that is also, from an equal and opposite perspective, alive and well in Japanese butoh dance. After all, her first works were made with her teacher and mentor Kurt Joos, whose 1932 work “Der Grune Tisch (The Green Table)” was considered one of the major expressions of anti-Nazi resistance. In the ’70s and early ’80s she certainly seemed to be preoccupied to giving precedence — through movement — to some of the most unbearable moments of human existence — repeatedly. In “Nelken (Carnations)” (1982) a fight takes place to the insistent clapping of dancers, seemingly urging it on. In the earlier “Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring)” from 1977, a lead dancer fainted because of the intensity of the sacrificial dance that she was required to perform, a circle of dancers around her.

In “Nefes,” such moments of collective social oppression do occur. Towards the end of the first half the female dancers gather, their hair hanging in front of their faces like thick veils. As they line up to take anonymously delivered kisses from the men, you can’t help thinking of a harem — and even more so when they crawl between the deckchairs the men are reclining on only to be given a peremptory stroke of the head while the men look the other way.

But the darkness does not last long. In a brilliant piece of theatrical design, as dancer Rainer Behr runs across a barely noticeable puddle of water on the stage, a shaft of light is let into the “Hammam” and along with it, water that falls down to create a small lake around which the dancers later play.

The content, especially in the second half, may be less sensational than previous outings, but Pina Bausch’s palette is constantly being replenished and is as rich and dissonant as it has always been. The maturity of her choregraphy is to permit the individuality of the dancers themselves to come out, something that lamentably few choreographers dare to do. The closest comparison could be Japan’s butoh choreographers, but although her company was once the guest of butoh founder Kazuo Ohno at his house near Osaka, Bausch claims that she has taken more from Japan’s traditional performing arts.

This year, which marks the 20th anniversary of her visits Japan, the choregrapher and founder of Tanztheater Wuppertal made the time for a rare interview with The Japan Times. Tall and gaunt, she takes puffs of her mild cigarettes as she discusses her work and her travels. She is about to go to Korea to premiere her new piece “Rough Cut,” which will come to Tokyo next April, and her eyes light up when she talks about it — as eager to get to work on it as she might have been on her very first show.

“Nefes” means breath in Turkish, why did you chose that word?

In this case, when we first performed it, we didn’t have a title, so I gave it later. It has to do with your own imagination. I don’t think it is up to the title to tell you what you should think. In the performance, each person should trust themselves — what comes to mind, the feeling. But it is also an extract of something — the title — to try to find something very simple. But “breath” means everything in a way. I feel it in the music — you can do a lot of things with the time — with the water — with our dancing. That we are living life and all. There are so many things.

“Nefes” came out in 2004. Was it hard to work in Turkey?

No, it was a big joy to do. We had performed in Istanbul a few times (“Masurca Fogo” or “Mazurka of Fire” in 2000). I love to perform there — we had such a wonderful public and after this they asked for a co-production. Istanbul was such a fascinating city, and so for us it was fantastic to learn about many things. They gave us a fantastic time in the research period (in 2003). A co-production is influenced by the place and the people . . . it also has to do with the time, with when it was created.

Nefes has already toured to Paris and Berlin as well as Istanbul. Are the performances different in any way?

Everything is the same except we change the language.

From your research in the country, do you start to dramatize the environment you find there or the social context?

It is the little things [in the place.] What is very complicated is — what kind of shape do you find for it? In a way you respect so much the cultures. It is impossible that we act like Japanese that we do the Japanese dancing or the Turkish dancing (like they do.) Still there is an abstraction — many things arrive in the pieces later. With the company it is what happens in that moment. It is very complicated.

Of course in the dances there can be a kind of a note, but each land naturally has its own character, because you have the extremes of the feelings of what you wish; how they (the countries) can feel, is very extreme. And of course, there is a completely different energy.

Do you mean that sometimes the effect comes later?

Yes it is true. But even after, when it [the performance] is done, it doesn’t stop having the influence — that we were here.

Did you work with designer Peter Pabst to get a Turkish aesthetic?

It is important to find an aesthetic, but we never know, when we are looking for a picture — we want an abstraction there, too. We are not looking for how we could do something ‘Turkish style.’ It has a lot to do with the feeling and something to do with Turkey . . . I am not a tourist guidebook on a culture.

Are you looking for how human behavior affects dance?

Yes it tells us a lot about the dance.

Through watching “Nefes,” we get a feeling of your dancers as more than dancers, we get a sense of them as human beings.

I don’t know if I do it on purpose. This is always important and I feel in the performance you know the people somehow. You are there; you know something about them . . . they come closer to you. This is something to do with what is important for me, why there is a performance. I think this is what you mean. And that is actually beautiful — that has nothing to do with nationalities — the human contact.

The music you chose often gives a strong atmosphere to the piece — here the works of Mercan Dede, Astor Piazzolla and Tom Waits are very striking, how do you choose the music?

There are so many kinds of music that I like but it is very difficult to use them. We always try to have music from the country where we do [the production.] With the Japanese piece [last year], when we came here, I changed some of the music. [For “Nefes”] all of the music was given to us.

Is that how you feel in your research? That you are spreading your net very wide and then trying to extract?

Yes, because we do not know what is coming, we are completely open and then we think “let’s see what happens now.” So it is not as though we have an expectation or a certain thing in mind, it is just an openness. But we are also very naive in a way.

Japan was one of the countries that recognized your work first, awarding you the Dance Critics’ Prize in 1987. Does the Japanese audience have a special affinity for your work?

I don’t know. It is fantastic that we have come here so many times . . . and each time my feeling is growing. I like it very much. I cannot speak for the public, but because we are invited again, there must be a big interest.

You used to work more from text, especially in memorable productions like “Iphigenie auf Tauris” (1974), “Orpheus und Eurydike” (1975), “Blaubart” (1977) or “Sacre de Printemps.” Do you feel you don’t need to go back to text any more?

I don’t know — it is completely open. If I feel there is something I love to do, I can do it, but it is different if you have “Iphigenie” or “Sacre” or “Blaubart.” You have a certain person, like you have Judith in “Blaubart ” or Orpheus in “Eurydike” or a few more. But I have so many beautiful dancers — each one is so different you know — I like to find something for all of them because they are so different. Are there pieces for so many different characters? I think it is about how to work with the company. Also with music — at the beginning we used a lot of live music with orchestra –but with an orchestra you cannot travel. There are so many wonderful musics in the world, so in a way it is fantastic that we do not have live music, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to travel. Both ways can be wonderful. If you could make a decision to do something else (a different way), it would be possible. But then somebody asks me if I would like to do a co-production again, and if I like to, I do. (Laughs.) It is already done, it goes so easy — so you just continue. It is not planned, but it happens.

Is that the beauty of improvisation?

It is not improvised; I follow a feeling, but it is not improvised.