Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 July 2009
Issue No. 955
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Time, brighter than the sun

By Walid Aouni

Pina Bausch

Life is strange, and we are the strangest thing about it; because death surrounds us at every moment, and surprises us every day. All we can do is feed on happiness at every available moment; but when we are not happy, we should learn from those who give us art to make us happy, we should understand life from a different perspective and in a way that allows us to uncover an inescapable reality. That was the way of Pina Bausch, from whom we learned to be happy in our lives. Her stage became a tune in which human relations intertwined one with the other, teaching us a lesson on how to smile and how to shock our lost humanity into renewed existence.

Pina Bausch emerged in the 1960s and 1970s with hurtful power. She transported dance into dialogue and legibility of the human form, into closed space, into broken lighting, relations and bodies we had never scene before in the world of dance. She also brought the street, society and social classes into dance, not to raise them to the level of the sublime but to make them the language of dance theatre, which altered the direction of dance the world over, opening up a new corridor onto the depths of our lost humanity. Dance was no longer concerned with aesthetics as such but with intellectual insights and the clash of relations between "others".

Being in love with love, being sad to be sad, or happy for the sake of happiness, from sex to sex: spring rites for her are no ritual; they are the epic of all the seasons. She sets out anew in every one of her works, so that each has its own rite, which we take in with surprise, admiration and sorrow -- all directed at her dancers, who are not human -- for they have metamorphosed into a "scenography" of thoughts. They transcend the boundary of that other side of our mind, normally out of order. They are material in motion, despoiling our thoughts and dreams, for by the time we come out of Pina Bausch's theatre, we are either reborn or we die again.

The dialogues of Pina Bausch in her shows come in the form of a question, a feeling broken by a question, never an answer. She laughs, she cries -- we do not know why. It is this that made dance theatre spread rapidly in Europe, like some beautiful bacteria, from Germany to Belgium and onto France, whence to every corner of the earth. She influenced the mighty and the meek, became food for all kinds of thought, as each country translated in its own way its own culture and traditions and society. The dialogue was no longer simply theatrical. It was a new logic, a new lexicon without rules. Translating the body became a literature, words written down to confront human relations, not human fraternities. Since we are divided into two parts, the search for our other part is ongoing. All our lives we continue looking for that other part; yet that part, we find hidden away in the theatre of Pina Bausch, and we discover ourselves.

I came into close contact with Pina Bausch for two months at her headquarters Wupparthal, Germany, in 2001, followed by several meetings some of which were in Paris. What mattered more than the work -- our attempts to bring her to Egypt -- was the attraction I felt for her character, her cold smile. As soon as it appeared on her lips, it eliminated the smile of the Mona Lisa, of Greta Garbo, of Marelene Dietrich. And what little talent I have for drawing, I used to draw her all through my presence with her, throwing into relief her thin, transparent body and its connection with her ideas, and her small head, with the tied up hair, long only from the back. She made the instruments of her work float above her head like hieroglyphs difficult to translate.

During one meeting with her in a small café in Wupparthal, after our artistic relations were established, I brought her one of these drawings featuring a cigarette that flew over her head with wings. She looked at it with her cold smile, bit her lips, and a few tears glittered in her eyes. To change the course of this idea, which she would take to yet another epiphany, I placed on her head the yellow scarf that was thrown over her shoulders, and wrapped it around her head and neck. She appeared like a saint of every possible religion, an old and strange icon. Afterwards there was silence.

Like every artist of genius in her last days, Pina Bausch simplified her life to the bare bones. She dealt with different peoples, and embarked on a new approach whereby she would live for a long time in some country and pursue the meaning of a particular people in order to do her projects. She went to Turkey with her troupe, and returned with a work on Turkey. Then she went to India (Bombay) and returned to Germany to spread her new ideas. Each time I would wonder how -- and to what extent -- Pina Bausch can run away from her thoughts, plunging into the theatre without logic, and still make an event so powerful that we would cry.

I asked her about her feelings regarding the Middle East, for she never came in her life to an Arab country. Our conversations about the eastern human being were deep. She dreamed to coming to Egypt. She asked, "What does the Great Pyramid look like?" I was surprised by the question, since she concentrates not on the look but on the meaning of something. Yet such was her approach. It was as if she asked, "What does love look like?" Matter to her is not matter, nor is feeling simply feeling. Both are the secrets of paradox and symbol.

For a few years we worked with the Goethe Institute in Cairo, and made several visits to Wupparthal, to be able to bring her and her troupe to Egypt to perform on the Main Hall stage the Opera House. In the end we triumphed. Her dream to come to an Arab country, to Egypt -- scheduled for 3-4 October 2009 -- would finally come true. I also found out she planned on staying in Egypt for a while, to create a new world in Egypt with her troupe in our studios at the Modern Dance Theatre Company at the Opera House. How I wanted this wish to come true! How much we dreamed of going together to the hiegroglyphic world, to Aswan, Luxor, Nubia, so that she could see what the Pyramid looked like.

Yet the winged cigarette beat us. Pina Bausch went through a divergent path on a strange road. She disappeared before she could inhale the odours of this east, even though she was very close. But the ways of the Creator are boundless, and fate cannot be kinder, for we cannot ask the sun to shine brighter or the rain to fall more gently. Pina Bausch departed and left behind time shining brighter than the sun.

If Maurice Biggar taught us the value of death, considering it an outlook on life, then Pina Bausch taught us what life has to be in order to be an outlook on life. Her shadow will be forever cast on the dust of the moist rites of spring, which never dry.

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