Arts Review

Heroic Aftermaths

Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, the most influential figures in dance and ballet over the past half century, were poles apart, and so were their audiences. Bausch tapped into the emotional and social drives that underlie sexual relations in an affluent, post-Freudian world. She theatricalized neurosis on a grand scale. Cunningham adopted the cool postures of dancing in the moment, subjecting the demands of ego and ambition to the unknown outcomes of chance. Cunningham and Bausch had put their marks on contemporary dance long before they died in 2009, but they both had a hand in their own mythologizing, a process that surfaced in a big way last winter.

Posterity isn’t kind to dancers. The inevitable disappearance of what they do has always been accepted, and even cherished. When they can no longer replenish or refresh their repertory, memory and myth take over. Much better, the rhetoric goes, to hang onto their deeds in the mind than to try to preserve what they’ve created or mold new ideas out of the remnants. Reputations can easily be doctored posthumously. But technology has stepped in to disrupt this narrative. First films, then video, now universally available digital images, have deprived dance of its treasured aura of singularity. Someone is bound to be sitting in just about every performance, stealthily or officially filming it. As bootleg footage floods YouTube, and the ample archives of every dance company become known, dance and choreography are losing their shield of exclusivity. These films may be inadequate, incomplete, or otherwise flawed, but they give dance an afterlife at least as credible as the hagiography we’ve been compelled to accept. We can ask more of choreography and performance than momentary thrill followed by nostalgia. Was it really as good as we remember? Was it even better, richer than we remember? Does it speak to us, or was it a figment of a sensibility we can no longer reconstitute?

In American modern dance, where the institutional protection enjoyed by ballet companies does not exist, the tangible legacies of deceased major choreographers are beginning to play out in very different ways. The Alvin Ailey company has built a big success, with a school, a building of its own in New York, and a dependable audience for new repertory and spiffed-up old favorites. The José Limón company struggles but survives as a medium for twentieth-century modern dance and its heirs. Anna Sokolow’s meager and psychologically demanding output is shared by two rival troupes. Martha Graham left a legal nightmare that took two decades to dissolve, and the Graham company is still looking for a way to represent her to the modern audience.

In Germany, Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal is carrying on under the co-direction of longtime dancer Dominique Mercy and Bausch’s artistic assistant Robert Sturm. The company has posted touring performances of Bausch’s repertory only through this summer. The Merce Cunningham company disbanded at the beginning of 2012, by design, after two years of touring without its leader. Both companies collaborated in farewell gestures that were sure to beef up their respective legends. Wim Wenders’ 3-D feature film memorializing Bausch was nominated for an Oscar when it was released at the end of 2011. The Cunningham company wound up its 60-year career with a series of performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music and three days of Events at the Park Avenue Armory, culminating in a wrap on New Year’s Eve.


Pina Bausch died unexpectedly, days after a cancer diagnosis. Plans were already afloat for a film by the director Wim Wenders, and after a suspension he resumed work. It would be interesting to know what changed, if anything, in his approach to Bausch’s story. Pina is part documentary, part affectionate tribute, emphasizing the absurdist and playful side of the Tanztheater diva. What you don’t get is any hint of the controversy that greeted her work when she took over the state-subsidized opera house in Wuppertal. Or the critical uproar when the company first appeared in America, or her subsequent adoption as a feminist hero. The finished film omits or skims over the corrosive stage spectacles that touched off her fame in this country. The twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who are the big fans of Pina weren’t even born then. This new audience seems to be unfamiliar with dance; maybe Bauschland was always peopled by dance’s detractors.

Beginning with the company’s BrooklynAcademy debut in 1984, New York saw a string of pieces that were regarded as revelation by some, as outrage by others. I was impressed, dismayed and quickly repulsed by these works—Bluebeard, Café Müller, Gebirge, Kontakthof, Arien, 1980. They all had the grandiose scale and disposability made possible by a lavish budget. There were floors covered with water or dirt; there were life-size wild animals, masks, foliage, furniture. The costumes were drab, unbecoming, and were usually drenched or filthy or discarded altogether by the end of a piece. People abused and humiliated each other with impersonal flair. The women were chronic victims who struggled in vain or submitted by going limp. In retaliation they peeked into the men’s underpants. Feminists seemed to find all this affirming. Dance critic Arlene Croce called it the pornography of pain.

In the 1975 Rite of Spring, Bausch’s only through-choreographed piece shown here, she depicted the heterosexual relationship as a drama of pursuit and acquiescence. I could appreciate the craft if not the sentiment. But the later pieces, the ones that made Bausch a star, had no choreography to distance the audience from the violence that was going on. Sometimes it was only metaphoric—a woman crouched on all fours while men slashed her back with lipstick. But more often, there was all this literal grabbing and groping and chasing, ruining of clothing and hairdos, teasing and tackling and compulsively repeated behaviors of intrusion and display. The women endured this brutalizing. They went back for more. They screamed, they scrambled. Their high heels became tokens of seductiveness. They wiggled their fannies in tight dresses. The men paid no attention. Ever-present rows of chairs allowed whoever wasn’t actively trashing someone else to become a blasé spectator.

There’s little of this Bauschian rage in Wenders’ film. Intercut with the harshest scenes, the performers themselves validate what they’ve been doing and eulogize their leader. Wenders captures them in head-shots, looking earnestly into the camera, with their words conveyed in voiceover. “Pina told me to get crazy,” says a woman. Another muses, “I remember her pain, her strength, her loneliness.” There were obstacles, says a man: “You have to go against or through them, or climb over them.” The same dancer heaves himself up over the edge of a pit, then lurches into an orgy of thrashing, writhing, rolling, twisting, staggering, falling on the ground. It’s not the effort of the climb he’s dancing, but maybe the memory of some other, less successful struggle.

Besides episodes from four of Bausch’s stage productions, Wenders takes Tanztheater on location. In a big white room, a woman in a yellow strapless dress sags from side to side. A man props her up. Romantic strings and piano are playing a waltz. In a grassy stone amphitheater, a woman in a long red and black strapless plods like a zombie. A man shadows her. When she keels over, he catches her, stands her upright, monitors her steps again. People at a dance line up to get inspected by prospective partners. Once outside the theater the settings are more expansive, but the sentiment remains the same: ironic and self-pitying. In the most liberated acts, the participants are alone, pouring water on themselves, clowning in a tram car, leaping over chairs in a field.

The popular success of Wenders’ film owes a lot to the fact that Bausch’s theatricality wasn’t framed in a dance language. Even on stage, her people seemed to be natural civilians in natural places, or they cavorted in the scene designers’ fantasy environments. They could be “real” without having to supply remedy or resolution. The performance would end eventually. They would scream or act out another day. In Wenders’ cinematic parks, subways, museums, roadsides, they could get to do outrageous things without getting arrested.

At the end of Pina a long line of people—present and past company members—parades across a ridge past a row of uprights that might be rotted piers or totemic sculptures. The men and women wear dressy clothes and charming fixed grins. They walk one step at a time to a slow New Orleans jazz tune that’s playing, and they gesture together, one move to the bar: arms open in welcome, shiver, finger-sign, turn the head and smile. It’s the dancers-on-parade chorus line Bausch used several times in her pieces. The people are adorable, but they’re flagrantly faking it.


Bausch solved the problem of abstraction by eliminating the conventionalized movement some people find so opaque about modern dance and ballet. She never got very far from the everyday, although she often pushed behavior beyond its mundane tolerances, into exhaustion, hysterics, and cruelty. It was bizarre, riveting, “merciless . . . a constant reminder of our own inadequacy,” in the words of the admiring German critic Jochen Schmidt. Bausch came onto the scene when the anarchy of the 1960s was subsiding into new dance forms and formalisms. The illusion of everydayness, originally embraced by the American postmodern dancers in search of neutrality, was re-theatricalized by Bausch and, around the same time, by the European developers of “physical theater.” Without the expensive trappings, physical theater also begins with naturalistic action. But instead of escalating to absurdity, this melts into dancelike but still recognizable couplings and combat. Physical theater’s drama is raw but nonjudgmental, while Bausch seemed always to be rendering a moral example. When she staged how miserably people could treat each other, she was viewed as trying to “develop a language with which to achieve the kind of communication that the other languages . . . have failed to provide,” in the words of Jochen Schmidt.

Neither moralizing nor metaphor drove Merce Cunningham. Making movement and choreography were enough to sustain his 65-year creative career. Often considered a classicist, Cunningham produced a repertory, a technique, and generations of dancers. His adherence to Zen-like principles of nondiscrimination, attentiveness, and staying out of the way of the work afforded him never-ending possibilities for dancemaking. No one knows for sure how much tweaking and editing he did once the dice had been thrown or the computer had generated its movement sequences. His dance scores consist of elaborate charts with verbal and sketched descriptions, but he still had to go into the studio and teach them. He claimed not to care about preserving his dances, but he did keep some in repertory for years, and he published some of his scores. Cunningham was always somewhat enigmatic, though not in a reclusive way like Bausch. He gave interviews graciously, but you couldn’t pin him down about specifics. What did his dances mean? Were there stories? How did he choose dancers? But he would talk inexhaustibly about what dancing meant to him. As he got older and more infirm (he was 90 when he died and had been more or less immobile for years), his appetite for experience never abated, and his statements were as aphoristic as ever.

Six months before Cunningham died, the company announced its “legacy” plan. After a two-year world tour, the company would disband. The studio in New York’s Westbeth artist complex would be closed along with the Cunningham school that operated there. The Cunningham Foundation, which supported the company’s activities, is to close and transfer its assets to another nonprofit, the Cunningham Trust. This will be the organization responsible for licensing revivals to other dance companies. The Trust intends to carry on classes at New York CityCenter and to make the Cunningham archives available publicly at the LincolnCenter dance library.

Cunningham’s deepest interest seemed to lie in making movement. Following his partner and philosophical mentor John Cage, he didn’t feel the need to concern himself with making sure all the production elements blended into a consistent artistic whole called a dance. He didn’t follow conventional practices for organizing a choreographic entity. His dances looked and sounded different from one another, but the movement wasn’t all that different across the repertory. If you look at films of his work over time, it’s really the dancers who change, and the way they do the movement, not so much the movement itself. Yet when we saw a Cunningham dance, new or familiar, it did come together as a given thing, a dance called Scramble or BIPED or Winterbranch. This is the part of the Cunningham legacy that’s most endangered now. Perhaps he would be satisfied to let it go, but I think no one who cares about dance history would agree.

For some years Cunningham dancers and alumni have been reconstructing dances that lapsed from the repertory, with a group of apprentice-level dancers called the Repertory Understudy Group (informally the RUGs). If you were in New York and in the know, you might have seen these gems in studio showings and other obscure places. Occasionally a dance would be brought back into the repertory through this process. Most of its work in recent years was filmed and otherwise documented. The Legacy Plan proposes building a multi-media archive, called a Dance Capsule, around each of 50 dances targeted for preservation. Each Capsule will contain rehearsal and performance footage, notes, scores, designs, and other material to assist in future restagings of the dance. This seems a good way to preserve the institutional memory of dances that have vanished from the stage. But we don’t know yet if these reasonable, organized efforts will result in credible performances of Cunningham dances.

Dance always seems to confer inordinate power on the transaction in the studio between the dancers and the choreographer. It’s not just the finished product that makes a Cunningham dance a Cunningham dance, but a certain force field that surrounds the work—an energy, an idea, an expectation—that binds together all the bodies and talents invested in the enterprise. We see this operating as something real, not mystical, in the remarkable online series Mondays with Merce ( Started in 2008 and directed by dance writer Nancy Dalva, the series comprises sixteen 15-to-20-minute episodes of film and talk, each centering roughly on a different aspect of Cunningham at work. First you see the logo being written in white on a black background in Cunningham’s inimitable handwriting, and you hear accompanist Pat Richter playing “Keep Your Sunny Side Up” on an out-of-tune piano. She plays it slightly differently every time. Then you see Cunningham talking, teaching class, dancing in old films. Former dancers, musicians and admirers talk about what Merce means to them, how his teaching stokes their own work. Dancers in the last company explain how they learn from him. The company dances at Dia:Beacon, in Los Angeles’ Disney Hall, in Moscow’s Mossovet Theater. Former companies dance in archival films.

Holding every episode together is the work in the studio at Westbeth. Cunningham gives class, sitting in a tall swivel chair with a ballet barre in front of him, describing what he wants with his hands, his words, his feet, and a body that still does the movements inside. He talks to his interviewer about it: “There’s more than one way to do a given movement and you should somehow find yourself having a conversation with as many of these ways as possible.” “I sometimes change the exercises so they’ll have to think, not just repeat them automatically.”

You see the dancers stretching, leaping, learning unimaginable combinations of movement. They don’t gasp or cry out or complain. They do it all again. Cunningham watches, gives instructions, rarely comments. He says to Dalva, the unseen interviewer: “You may not know how to do it, but you go ahead and try. That seems to be part of courage.” He’s articulate, a wise old man, who’s totally unpretentious. He talks about long-ago picnics when they were on tour and John Cage and David Tudor would go off into the woods to find mushrooms and wild greens, and everybody else would gather wood for the cooking fire. He talks about the sunsets coming in the studio windows over the Hudson River, and how interesting Cage’s and Tudor’s music would be if you could get past the noise. He notes that when he revived an old dance, he wanted to restore it as accurately as possible, but he wanted the new dancers to perform it in their own way. You see the effort of it all, and the fun, the imagination, the discovery they were all sharing together, every day, with every dance.


Cunningham’s dances always looked like dance although he allowed pedestrian movement to insert itself. You’d see dancers suddenly leave off whatever rigorous technical phrase they were doing and stroll off stage. Or people would be required to handle props that some designer had introduced. But these gestures were almost parenthetical, mandated by Cunningham’s encompassing rule that ambient elements could be folded in when they arose. Cunningham himself was a superb dancer of these eccentricities. Later, when he got older, he entered the performance with the same intensity. He stood or paced at the edge, watching the dancers, walked over to someone with a correction, sketchily partnered a woman.

“Chance” for him meant more than an embrace of the accidental. It meant he could leave some of the creative initiative to science. After he made up the movement, some impersonal process would structure it, impose the beginnings and endings, lay out the routes for the dancers to cover in space. The all-encompassing proposition of chance also implied something else that Cunningham demanded of himself and his dancers, and the audience. He wanted us to pay attention, to be fully in the moment, to appreciate the commonplace alongside the extraordinary, the rough and the refined, the spontaneous and the rehearsed. This is what he thought it means to live, and the thought sustained him.

Insiders differ about how actively Cunningham endorsed the Legacy plans. He was focusing his waning energies on making new dances, but he’d always left administrative decisions to the front office anyway. He was realist enough to see the difficulty of keeping the company going. For his part, the important thing was to keep on making things, “. . . dancing, not just by myself but working in depth with other people. So you find a way to continue,” he said in a long-ago interview. Without his presence as a motivating force and, frankly, as a box-office draw, the company might have had a hard time continuing. The Legacy Tour of the past two years brought it a lot of attention; people traveled long distances and filled theaters to see its last performances. But the truth is Cunningham never captured the mainstream audience. Acknowledged as a master choreographer and inspiration for almost every important dancemaker working today, he’s known to an audience of devotees. The Cunningham company made its living by touring, performed in hundreds of places here and abroad, but its audience was small and relatively rarefied. The general audience, the one that wanted sex-starved men and women raging around in their underwear, never got Cunningham.

Some commentators blamed everything but the dancing. Cage and his musical confederates produced loud, grating, clashing noises and nerve-wracking silences. Designers turned off the lights. They stuck large unwieldy objects in the dancers’ way, or gave them bulbous, shape-effacing costumes. The dancers had to cope. On top of all this, they themselves danced like deranged virtuosos. Their bodies were fragmented in all directions, they changed speeds abruptly, achieved beautiful poses and balances and broke them, flocked together and split apart. They looked super-dancerly, super-engineered, then suddenly they looked capricious as whitecaps or windblown leaves. Cunningham, who sometimes danced in workmen’s overalls, told Nancy Dalva in a last Mondays with Merce interview: “I always thought, in its way, it could free people to look, not expect something to look like something they’ve seen before.” His idea about being inclusive was to expand everyone’s field of view. That was his challenge, and his genius.