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.
Pina Bausch, The Rite of Spring, 1984. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, 2017. Photo: Stephanie Berger
“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.