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Pina Bausch (1940-2009)
An iconic choreographer-dancer, in love with India
- Rajika Puri, NYC

July 7, 2009

Pina Bausch in a rare appearance in one of her pieces: Danzon ('95) © Jochen Viehoff
On the day that Bamboo Blues, Pina Bausch's dance-theatre work inspired by India, premiered in Delhi in 2008, this luminous woman, arguably the most influential choreographer and theater artist of our time, gave one of her rare interviews. "It's impossible for us to do a piece about India," she said. "Impossible. What do we know about India? . . . There is so much to learn."

Yet she had found inside herself a deep respect and love for this country, nurtured by friendships with Indians in India and abroad which finally led her to bring members of her company Tanztheater Wuppertal to India for a residency. Then, approaching the prospective work in the way she developed most of her dance-theatre pieces, she asked them questions of what they had seen, smelt, felt, and helped shape their answers into modules of movement.

'Bamboo Dreams': Ganesh being carried while Shantala Shivalingappa performs an adavu
Photo: Richard Termine, Courtesy: BAM
By 2006, Ms Bausch had reached iconic status not just in her native Germany and the west, but around the world. Her company performed her extensive repertoire of about forty-four works in cities that ranged from Sao Paolo and Santiago de Chile to Budapest, Cairo, and Seoul. Her interest in other cultures dates from the early 'eighties, since when she made works inspired by different places like Hong Kong, Portugal, Argentina, and Japan.

But India had a special place in her heart.

Ms Bausch's connection with India goes back to '79 when she toured Fruehlingsopfer ('Rite of Spring'). This '75 work is an emotionally charged, visceral interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's music envisioning a primitive human sacrificial rite. Performed on a layer of earth, it involves nudity, which caused a youth group in Calcutta to stop the show. But in those days Ms Bausch was used to controversy and resistance because she always asked uncomfortable questions, dealt with things that made us squirm, pushed the envelope so to say.
'Rite of Spring' ('75) toured in India in 1979 © Jochen Viehoff
She returned a year later, just to visit, and went into remote parts of Kerala, attending all-night performances in temple precincts, drawn by a spiritual connection that this very private person rarely talked about. Over the years she made friends with Indian dancers like the Paris-based Savitry Nair (a Kalakshetra student, also shishya of Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam) and Chandralekha, through whom she imbibed much about India and Indian dance.

By the time Tanztheater Wuppertal returned to India in '94, her friendship with Chandralekha had cemented to the point that 'Nelken' or 'Carnations' ('84) was co-presented on tour in India with Chandralekha's 'Yantra.' Catching them at performances in Mumbai, I was struck by the easy comfort of their friendship. Both had giant intellects which were translated into deeply moving theatrical works of intense beauty. Both challenged us to re-think not just 'dance' but the very essence of being human.
Field of carnations in 'Nelken' ('84) on tour in India with Chandralekha's 'Yantra' © Jochen Viehoff
As the curtain went up at Homi Bhaba Auditorium in Mumbai, I'll never forget the gasp from the audience as we saw the stage filled shin-high with (plastic) carnation plants. Later, there were many discussions in the lobby because the dancers had often spoken to us directly even defiantly. "Is this dance or is this theatre?" some asked. And that is precisely the point. What Ms Bausch called it was 'dance-theater,' and by '84 she had developed the format followed by most of her subsequent works powerful movement solos interspersed with theatrical vignettes in which the dancers speak and interact - with the audience.

Ms Bausch's love of Indian dance found greater expression in her own work after she invited Savitry Nair's daughter Shantala Shivalingappa, a Kuchipudi dancer, to become Guest Artist with Tanztheater Wuppertal in '99. Shantala first performed in 'O Dido' and was incorporated into the older Fruehlingsopfer both essential 'western' works - but in 'Nefes' ('03) she danced not only modern western movements but also excerpts from her traditional Kuchipudi vocabulary. Then came Ms Bausch's 'India piece.'
Shantala Shivalingappa playing with mudra © Jochen Viehoff
'Bamboo Blues' is filled with vignettes inspired by their travels in India. Scenes that stand out: a fashion show catwalk of paired dancers in variously draped Malayali mundus, a woman washing her hair in a bright red plastic bucket, a group of reclining women chewing something who were variously interpreted as 'bored courtesans surveying prospective clients,' 'a National Geographic photo of a group of tigers,' and (this one I believe was correct) 'an assemblage of cows, chewing cud'!
'Bamboo Dreams': 'reclining cows chewing cud' © Jochen Viehoff
These kinds of images, however, are interspersed with beautiful dance solos a woman twirling and twisting across the stage creating patterns with her flowing dress and her long black hair, a group of men in black trousers and white shirts writhing sinuously on the floor only to jump up and do a Shahrukh Khan take-off, Shantala Shivalingappa involved in a contemplation of the movements of her hastamudra, which pull her in unexpected directions.
'Bamboo Dreams': men writhing on ground against Bollywood projections © Jochen Viehoff
'Bamboo Blues' - men in mundus flinging veshtis by Jochen Viehoff
On June 12, Ms Bausch's newest work still only titled 'New Piece 2009' (Neuest Stucke 2009) - had its first performance at her company's home in Wuppertal. I had heard that Joseph Melillo, Executive Producer at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), was flying over to see it, and looked forward to seeing it soon in New York (since 1984, BAM has presented 19 of her 44 works). No doubt we still will - but without Ms Bausch there to grace its New York premiere.

A last image provided by him offers much solace:
"My final vision of Pina is at the post-premiere party surrounded by her dancers, former dancers, colleagues from around the globe including myself, friends and local supporters. The new and now final work of art was a beautiful creation. The dancers were stunning. Pina was very, very happy."

Rajika Puri is an acclaimed exponent of Bharatanatyam (Sikkil Guru Ramaswamy Pillai) and Odissi (Deba Prasad Das), which she performs in solo recitals all over Europe, the US, Latin America, and India. Rajika has also studied western music (the voice and piano), American Modern Dance (at the Graham & Cunningham studios in New York), and Flamenco. Career highlights include a command performance for the President of Mexico. She has had a unique career on the western stage, often bringing to her roles the richness of the Indian theatre tradition she was initially trained in. In 1983 she received an MA in The Anthropology of Human Movement from New York University, specializing in how meaning is made through movements such as the hand gesture (hasta mudra) system of classical Indian theatre. Writings and articles range from academic papers in journals like Semiotica to previews of dance performances in Playbill, and magazine features on dance from a cultural perspective..