Art and Literature

Unreal Valentine: Revisiting Carnations #1: Pina Bausch and the dance of words

In the 1990’s, I was invited at the last moment to see a performance of a dance called “Carnations” to be performed by Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal.  I hesitated.  I had seen the company’s brutal peat-moss strewn interpretation of the RITES OF SPRING in the 80’s in Brooklyn, and was still recovering from the experience.  It was genius, but upsetting.  Almost if not actually traumatizing.

“Oh no,” my friend, the installation and video artist Erika Suderburg said to me, when I told her I was considering.  “‘Carnations'” is not like that.  It’s a valentine to the audience.”

Erika understood the piece perfectly.  From start to finish, “Carnations” is about love.  It is also about words.  The dancers speak to the audience — they speak about what they are doing, and how they are doing it.  They speak about when they first decided to become dancers.  They speak as they move; they walk on tables, ride upon each other, and attempt to navigate a stage literally planted with 8000 carnations, as trained dogs bark at them in well-timed intervals.

Watching the new Wim Wenders film Pina, this past weekend, I recognized the closing moments of “Carnations.”  Not a dancer, I have never forgotten the gestures of the seasons that I saw more than 10 years ago.  Sitting at the computer, I can do them right now.  And am doing them.  I did them at the movie theater, with my 3-d glasses perched on my face:

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, the dancers say as they make the gestures.  I speak with them, as I type these words.

Try the “seasons march” yourself.

Fun, isn’t it?

Sometimes, we are lucky enough to encounter art that makes us want to make art right back.  Art that never leaves us out, despite/because of its very brilliance.  Art that makes us want to participate, because it shares.

“Carnations” continually surprises the viewer with/into sharing because it isn’t ballet, and it isn’t theater, and it isn’t realism and it isn’t surrealism.  It is a work that continually “defamiliarizes” the real and makes the impossible possible, but not ordinary — homey (“heimlich”).

At the end of the performance of “Carnations” that I saw, Pina Bausch came out on stage and taught us to do a few simple dance moves.  The entire audience at Royce Hall stood up and danced with the company.

That’s some valentine.

Watch an excerpt and discussion of “Carnations” here:

RTHK: The Works, “Carnations”

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