Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Vanessa Manko revisits Pina Bausch’s, The Rite of Spring.
“Dance, dance otherwise we are lost,” Pina Bausch, the German choreographer and artistic director of Tanztheater Wuppertal, famously said. I first saw—or rather, experienced—Pina Bausch when I was an undergraduate studying abroad in Paris. I had trained in dance since I was six years old, but I had recently left the ballet company I was dancing for, putting an end to what had been only the very beginning of a career. To say that I was lost because I was no longer dancing would be an understatement. I had fled to Paris to fill the gaping hole that ballet had left within me. I would learn French, study art and culture, travel, and take in all that Paris and Europe had to offer—but still, I had lost my way of expressing myself, and I had not yet found another artistic outlet. I had no way of dealing with the terrible grief and lassitude that followed me to Paris. “You take yourself with you,” my mother told me, wisely, before I left. All that fall and into a very cold winter, I tried to adjust to my new, chosen role as a student. But underneath all that, I was a brooding former ballet dancer, and I walked the boulevards of Paris trying to feel once again. I longed for the light and grace and beauty that had been, for so long, my existence. My identity had been built within ballet’s rigorous daily routines and the discipline of beginning each day in first position at the barre. Dancers are different creatures. They are cloistered in studios all day, rehearsing or performing late into the evenings, and they have a certain predilection for perfectionism. It’s a monastic life. I found myself in civilian life feeling as if I were one of the fallen, cast out of ballet’s mighty kingdom. “Why did you quit?” people asked. It was painful to hear that word, quit, the sound of it like an axe striking wood. “It just wasn’t working,” I’d say, as if it were a divorce. But I had stopped because I wanted to go to college, and I yearned for something more—life, knowledge, food, art, books. And so, Paris.
“You’re a dancer. Your approach to the world will always be through movement, through your body,” a therapist once told me. But I ran as far away as I could from dance. I took up swimming and running, and I ran straight into the life of the mind. What saved me were books and my first tentative attempts at writing. It was in Paris that I had the first inklings that I might become a writer. By the spring of that year abroad, I felt able to, at least, see dance performances again. I took advantage of the student rush tickets at the Palais Garnier. It was 1997 and Pina Bausch was restaging, on the Paris Opera Ballet, her 1975 masterpiece, Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Truth be told, I had not heard of Bausch. I was familiar with all kinds of dance genres and techniques—Graham, Cunningham, Balanchine, Cecchetti, Vaganova, Limón—but nothing could prepare me for Pina Bausch.
On a stage covered in dirt, dancers honored the advent of spring and engaged in rituals of celebration and competition. A young woman was chosen as the sacrificial victim who must dance herself to death. In Bausch’s rendering of The Rite of Spring, the ballet is also a battle of the sexes. Men and women gathered in bands, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes tender, until the necessary choosing—by fate—of the one to be sacrificed. Raw, stark, and deeply theatrical, the choreography is atavistic in its deep, pulsing pliés à la second and in its darting, panicked pacing. It spoke to me on a visceral level. Here was a world far from the tame, codified world of ballet. Instead, there was wild fear, lust, despair, anger. There was an overall sense of disquiet embedded in the music and unleashed from deep within the dancers—in the pleading reach of limbs, the anguish of an arched back, the herdlike stamping of feet and, due to the strenuous nature of the dance, in the panting. And the dirt. So much dirt. Dirt clinging to clavicles, streaked across torsos and smudged, war paint–like, along shoulders, brows, cheekbones and lips. It seemed as if Bausch had communed with our ancient ancestors and brought all their primal fury into the modern world.
I remember leaving the Palais Garnier and walking out into the Paris night changed. I was not quite certain how I had changed, but I felt as if all the angst and unease coursing through me that entire year had sprung out from me and onto that stage. For the first time in a long time, I felt not so alone. Ironic, considering I had just watched the chosen one dance to her death—the loneliest of positions and roles if there ever was one. Later that night, as I tried to sleep, it was hard to shake the images of the performance from my mind. The former longtime New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce deemed those “after images”—those moments and patterns and arrangements of bodies that imprint themselves on one’s mind long after the performance is over. The ritualistic circles, the bodies contracting and convulsing to Stravinsky’s driving score, the lighter moments of frolic: they all continued to haunt me. And I saw the terror in the chosen woman’s face, her desperation as she grabbed at the air and pulled her clenched fist to her gut, again, and again, and again. It seemed to mirror some of my own inner tumult and anguish. I was struck by her fragility and vulnerability, but also by her fierce strength. She seemed to be crying out and expressing loss and grief, yes, but also a hunger and a longing for more—always more—life. After seeing The Rite of Spring, I could feel again. That particular spring opened to me. The new world and path that I had chosen began to coalesce, and my allegiance shifted from dance to writing.
Twenty years have now passed since that spring in Paris. I have seen nearly every Pina Bausch performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—Danzón, Masurca Fogo, Nefés, Bamboo Blues, Vollmond, to name a few—and was saddened by her sudden death in 2009. Those first stirrings of my desire to write continued and grew into a deeper need. I went on to become a writer, writing about dance and then moving on to fiction and publishing my first novel. In the intervening years, I have also loved and lost friends and a parent. I have suffered through a crushing depression. I have met new friends and loves. I have seen other lives and career paths I thought were meant for me crumble as quickly as they took shape. And, I’m surprised to admit, I’ve even returned to dancing. It’s a more recent development, a way to reconnect with that former dancer self I abandoned all those years ago.
Even more recently, I saw Bausch’s The Rite of Spring again when the Tanztheater Wuppertal performed it in Brooklyn alongside Café Müller, the two works featured in their 1984 historic, first performance at BAM. On opening night, September 14, 2017, the lobby was abuzz with anticipation, excitement and, beneath it all, a kind of deference. The acclaimed choreographer Mark Morris was there in his usual insouciant attire—shorts and sneakers. I watched as the friend I had brought with me (new to Bausch) experienced the humor and then the horror of Café Müller’s repetitious vignettes, which portray the chronic, recurring patterns men and women succumb to in their often futile attempts to coexist and communicate.
And then, The Rite of Spring. Here again was the dirt, the singular sounds of Stravinsky, the chosen one’s red chemise, an omen of what was to come, and of course the dancing—the same furtive, frantic, pulsating bodies; fists clasped in unison, clutched and drawn between legs; the crashing, shuttering falls to the ground; the stops and starts; the paralyzed fear.
I eventually did find something to compare to the joy, ecstasy, and release of dancing—writing. To be able to use words to articulate emotions, to describe and pin down experiences so that they are lasting and concrete, and not ephemeral like dance, affords another kind of triumph. But there is a similar sense of achievement and satisfaction in forming something out of raw materials; whether words or the body. But I also see that words do have limitations. Emotions expressed through dance still live deep within me, within all of us. “How would you dance if you knew you were going to die?” Bausch asked when trying to find the right movement vocabulary for her rendition of Stravinsky’s score. The answer is in this choreography. For all the writing in the world, there are some experiences that live in the body and can only be communicated through movement, gesture, dance.
Reexperiencing this work was bittersweet. What, I wonder, would have happened if I had continued to dance? Perhaps I would have simply shed ballet and stepped into another dance genre—modern? Would I have come to Bausch in a different way then, as a dancer? Is it possible that, in some parallel life, I could have been a member of her company? To watch them dance—this dance in particular—made me ache to be dancing again. I longed to move like that, to feel the notes of Stravinsky’s dissonant score thrumming through my being, to contract and release and lunge and thrash. It’s a strange dance to crave to perform. It is fear and panic embodied, and also desire and despair. The movement is weighted, gritty, unhinged, and almost animalistic. It’s the very opposite of ballet with its steely grace, its ethereal and composed allure. “I loved to dance because I was scared to speak. When I was moving, I could feel,” Pina Bausch has said. And through her work, she has allowed me to feel again, too. The emotive force of her choreography has been passed down through the different generations of her dancers. It is offered up in The Rite of Spring not so much as a sacrifice but as a gift. It was a gift to me the first time I saw it in Paris, when I was struggling to become something other than a ballet dancer, and it was a gift to me recently, as the new person I’d come to be. How ironic, how very humbled I was, to find that this time, while watching, there was nothing I longed for more than to be a dancer—again.
Vanessa Manko is the author of The Invention of Exile.