ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA | She refused. At first, she did.
Pina did not want her picture taken…until she had a change of heart.
The late Pina Bausch was an elusive high priestess of dance theater; she was used to getting what she wanted. Even late in life, she routinely refused to give interviews for the press. She rarely invited outsiders into her rehearsals.
“She was camera shy, wouldn’t look at the camera, so it was difficult to get her picture,” says the photographer and performance artist William Yang. “Her dancers held her in high esteem, revered her, regarded her as the guru. In an interview she was asked how she chose her dancers, and her reply, as I remember, was, ‘…if I could somehow love them.’ “
In 1982, Bausch’s Wuppertaler Tanztheater from West Germany performed two dance-theater pieces — Kontakthof and 1980 — during that transformational first year when Jim Sharman became artistic director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Yang’s documentary-style photographs of those two productions, about 20 prints in all, are installed in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House, outside the Drama Theatre and the Studio.
The small show, entitled 2 Pieces by Pina Bausch, were on display for two weeks from August 23 until September 4 in 2011. (The foyers are open from 10:00 am and close after the last performance. In lieu of a formal opening, Yang hung out at the foyer.)
2 Pieces by Pina Bausch served as an adjunct to the Spring Dance Festival 2011’s weekend of film and conversation called “Pina: A Celebration,” taking place Sept. 2 and 3 at the Opera House. According to the weekend’s curators Caroline Baum and Wendy Martin in the Opera House website, “The influence of the late Pina Bausch is stamped all over Spring Dance 2011. Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal first came to Australia to perform at the Adelaide Festival in 1982. The consequences of that visit were no less than seismic: if former festival director Jim Sharman had not made the decision to bring Bausch to Adelaide, if her former dancer Meryl Tankard had not later set up her own company here, if Lloyd Newson had not been inspired by her radical inquiry into human nature, the current landscape of Australian contemporary dance would look very different.”
Bausch created a searing, psychologically raw non-narrative synthesis of movement and drama based on emotion. “Her work had a huge impact on me,” Yang says. “It was the first time I fully engaged with a dance work, albeit dance theatre, on a level of feeling, emotion and intellect. The dancers talked, new dimensions were revealed. She’s been my yardstick for dance ever since.”
Yang had asked to photograph a rehearsal. As was her wont Bausch refused, offering access to a performance instead. “That was by far the better option for me,” says Yang, who later found himself traveling on the company bus to the suburban venue where her dancers performed Kontakhof.
Running nearly three hours, Kontakthof was created in 1978, and it eventually made its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985. As is typical with most of her work, it was about the complicated relations between men and woman.
The West German choreographer had already raised quite a ruckus by that time, because she eschewed conventional dance movement and put forward instead strict dramatic structures.
Kontakthof‘s title literally translated as “contact yard,” and the realistic set by the late Rolf Borzik, her primary set and costume designer, depicted a dance hall in which men and women met, clashed, danced (to jazz, tango and sentimental German popular songs of the 1930’s) and engaged in harsh love-play.
“Kontakthof was performed at the Thebarton Town Hall, in the suburbs of Adelaide,” remembers Yang. “It still had the ornate architecture of the early 1900s. To me, Kontakthof was about the battle of the sexes, the way men and women relate to each other, although it was far from romantic. There were depictions of lust, cruelty and isolation, but also charm and seduction amid the beauty of the dancers in their evening wear and long formal dresses.”
To this day, Bausch aficionados remember the image of her women dancers in Kontakthof marching around the stage and adjusting unseen girdles under their little tight black dresses and her men facing audiences, using them as a mirror, while they clean their teeth, slick back their hair and prepare for the evening’s affair.
“1980 was performed on grass in a theatre,” Yang continues. “I read it was based on the death of a friend, so there were scenes of melancholy and stillness, although I would describe the piece as a comedy, a romp.”
Death was indeed only an undertow. Running nearly four hours in length when it eventually was performed at BAM in 1985, 1980 was created following the death of Borzik, her close collaborator and her Dutch-born husband who died in 1980 of leukemia.
Nevertheless, the grass on the stage made audiences think of life and rebirth as metaphors. The mood was frequently merry and entertaining. There was a cheeky sequence when the men and women, as in a chorus line or a beauty pageant, showed off their legs. At one point, the dancer Mechtild Grossman jiggles her breast as well as a mountain of jello on a plate.
“Gender was an issue,” says Yang. “Pina’s work is a showcase for women, and often the men are depicted as little boys. One of them had a big bowl of junket or porridge which he carried around half the night eating. The men are also capable of brutish aggression. At times the piece seemed completely random and chaotic, but it was choreographed, and they were able to reproduce it each night. So there was a discipline behind all of the chaos.”
2 Pieces by Pina Bausch reflects Yang’s early work as a photographer for hire. His true and great subject is Sydney’s social life. His striking photos, which he’s been taking since 1974, span the gamut of Sydney’s gay and artistic community as well as the Chinese in Australia.
Yang is also known for his performance pieces (story telling with projected images and music in the theatre) which he has been performing since 1989. His 1992 performance Sadness was made into a film by Tony Ayres in 1999. Yang is currently transferring his performance pieces to DVDs at the University of New South Wales.
“To me Pina brought an emotional intellect to dance which I’d never seen before,” Yang says. “The experience involved thought, and I came away contemplating the human condition. And the main expression of all this was from moving bodies, dancers. Amazing.”
The gem of the 2 Pieces batch is undoubtedly the photograph that Yang could have never taken. Without Bausch’s approval, naturally.
Yang recalls: “She had such an aura about her that I hardly spoke to her, although she knew who I was. I would sometimes travel on the company bus to the Town Hall at Thebarton, the venue for Kontakthof. On the last night of the festival, Pina tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Take a photo of my husband and me.’ In that moment I glimpsed the person.” –RG
All works shown here are courtesy of William Yang.
The originals are available though Stills Gallery (www.stillsgallery.com.au).
Prices range from $1540 framed to $2420.