Feeling Pina: How The Choreographer Moved People

Dance has always been my first love. Early in my study of it I discovered that movement and music captured states of feeling which eluded words and my ability to communicate them. These early experiences led me to the belief that art, in all its forms, captures our emotional experience in situ, and it has followed me through my training as a psychologist and psychoanalyst, remaining at the heart of my psychotherapy work. When I am moved, I understand from the inside. Words alone can only hint at the depth and complexity of our emotional experience, but art, and in this case, dance, accesses and transmits emotions directly, bypassing spoken language and reaching us in deeply personal ways.

The German modern dance master Pina Bausch understood this and built her opus around it. Through her Tanztheater (“dance theater”), Bausch created a direct link to our emotions, speaking to us through multiple narratives of movement, music, theater and performance. Her work addresses our first language, the language of affect, a language that needs no translation. The bodies of her dancers embodying emotion subjectively – they become its creator, carrier, choreographer and narrator.

Choreographers have always aimed to reach us through the movement of their steps, but for Bausch the use of movement as emotive gesture and as carrier of an individual’s experience is expressed physically and through the body of her dancers. It is her dancers as subjects, telling their own stories and experiences that communicate meaning and move us to our own. They are not only the performers but also the subjects of the emotions in question. This constitutes a huge departure from ballet and other types of modern dance, where the bodies of dancers disappear into the dance becoming objects that interpret the vision of the choreographer. Until Pina Bausch created Tanztheater, dancers executed an aesthetic vision. In her work they embody the experience.

Bausch’s interest in the emotional experience of the subject cost her dearly with dance critics. She has been accused of being too much, not subtle enough in her pieces; theater, not dance, it has been said. But Bausch was not interested in how people move but, rather, in what moves them. Her dancers come in many shapes, sizes, ages, colors. They are often the authors of the dances, providing memories, experiences, bits of their lives which power the movement that follows. Bausch did not consider herself a choreographer, even though her Tanztheater pieces had a structure, a purpose, a meaning. She was interested in the expression of feelings in the best way that they could be conveyed, and for her this involved movement and dance. Bausch would begin many of her pieces by asking dancers for a movement that expressed a particular emotion and on that basis build a dance. To my mind she was building emotional mind-body circuits created in relation to another, and in her dances those circuits are alive and firing away between the dancers and us.

That art – again, in all its forms – generates a map that guides our bodies toward emotional states that are otherwise unattainable has now been documented by a growing body of neuro-biological research. Yet, artists have always known this implicitly, and to my mind, this is one of the many reasons why we need art: it helps us to access internal experience directly, and through its movement within the self, (momentarily) symbolizes affective experience for us. It touches and accesses what is implicitly known and makes it known in our bones, connecting us to the echo of early experience and its resonance in the present. Art in all its forms finds us, surprises us, awakens us and envelops us in the deepest of personal meanings. This is likely because art operates on multiple orders – symbolic, inchoate, and unformulated (sensual registers if you will) in the creation of such meaning. Art is capable of accessing even what has been dissociated and exiled within us because it speaks to us in our first and most basic language – the language of affective experience.

It is the story of many artists that their particular art form narrates their means of surviving. With Pina Bausch, dance emerges as the very basis of a different language, the language of human experience, a language that must access emotions directly and, through that reach, go further into the emotional resonance of others. Dance thus becomes the language of trauma re-worked and extended through our common bond – our humanity. Her dance becomes the means of accessing narratives that escape the preciseness of language, yet demand to be understood, processed, and finally spoken. Paradoxically, the acquisition of language relegates un-processed, non-verbal experience to that which is lived and felt as opposed to those experiences that can be verbally represented and spoken. We are thus left with experiences that carry no verbal signifier and cannot be accessed through everyday language, where words are not enough and yet meaning is present. Where rhythms, tones, and traces are perceivable as colors and frequencies, as movement that is there and yet to be signified. These psychic inscriptions which constitute (at least in part) the glue of our internal-object relations are the area of language that is porous and escapes the word but is captured in the work of Pina Bausch.

Bausch uses dance to breach language and choreography in their conventional use and reach beyond them. Through her pieces we are moved to experience, personally and viscerally what words alone cannot convey. What it touches in me is both alike and different than what it touches in you. Such is the nature of emotional experience and the creation of personal meaning. Words give us a way to speak about it, but dance (and art) reaches us directly. It moves us.

Bausch begins with a specific emotion and builds movement around it, using repetition to highlight it, expand it, explore all sides of it, and drive her point home. For me this is alike to the repetition involved in psychological trauma, where one may continue to repeat the same experiences with the hope of understanding and perhaps reparation. In the dances of Pina Bausch, repetition becomes an important element and structuring device: she makes sure that we do not get away from the emotions she wants us to feel. We must stand at attention. We must feel it again and again, sometimes without end. Bausch grabs us and pulls us into her pieces. Her language is the language of raw emotion, of what people do to each other, of what people are capable of, of what all of us are about: love, despair, violence, aggression, beauty.

And so it is for her sets and costumes, which aim to highlight, embellish, aggrandize the emotion, becoming subjects of the dance themselves – another visual means of stirring emotion and complementing the dancers’ personal aesthetic movement.

The internal reservoir of emotional understanding that art and dance contacts and converges with is implicitly known to all of us. It is the language of our senses and the relational configurations that it is based on. Through Bausch’s pieces we are open to a different connection to, and grasp of, the other’s experience as our own. All conveyed through movement and its echo in us.

While as a psychoanalyst I rely on words to reach, translate and extend meaning to my patients, sometimes they refuse my words, momentarily enraptured in meaning so personal and profound, that it resists words. The experience of being with a particular patient at such times, and my experience of them, becomes a powerful carrier of meaning. I am often in a position of being the container and receiver of many moments which convey a meaning of their own through their powerful affective pull, and challenge me to find words over and over. When words fail, enter implicit knowing, enter the world of emotions, enter art and its aesthetic movement through the self and the self-in-relation. Enter Bausch and her implicit understanding of the power of emotions. Enter dance as the language of emotion and its reverberations through self and other.

In the recent documentary entitled Pina, the cinematographer Wim Wenders gives us a film that is “implicitly” about Pina Bausch, because we learn about her through the feel of the dancers. We get to know the woman through experiencing her aesthetic movement. The film is in 3-D and envelops us within it, reaching out and inviting us to participate in it. For Bausch, words only hinted at our lived experience.

“Dance, dance!” she implored, “for without dance we are lost”.


Pina Bausch Works:

  • 973 Fritz Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris (Goethe)
  • 1974 Zwei Krawatten (Two ties) Ich bring dich um die Ecke und Adagio – Fünf Lieder von Gustav Mahler (I’ll take you around the corner and Adagio)
  • 1975 Orpheus und Eurydike (Orfeo ed Euridice) Frühlingsopfer (The Rite of Spring)
  • 1976 Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) (libretto: Bertolt Brecht; music: Kurt Weill; ballet with pantomime, dance and singing (soprano und manly quartet); content: parable about petit-bourgeois hypocrisy; musical style: late romantic period und jazz; genre: parody and musical)
  • 1977 Blaubart – Beim Anhören einer Tonbandaufnahme von Béla Bartóks Opera, Herzog Blaubarts Burg“(Bluebeard – with recording of Bela Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”) Komm tanz mit mir (Come dance with me) Renate wandert aus (Renate emigrates)
  • 1978 Er nimmt sie an der Hand und führt sie in sein Schloss, die anderen folgen (He takes her by the hand and leads her to his castle, the others follow) Café Müller Kontakthof (Kontakt “contact” + Hof “court, courtyard”, hence “contact court, courtyard of contact”)
  • 1979 Arien (Arias) Keuschheitslegende (Chastity Legend)
  • 1980 1980 – Ein Stück von Pina Bausch (1980 A piece by Pina Bausch) Bandoneon
  • 1982 Walzer (Waltz) Nelken
  • 1984 Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört (A cry was heard on the mountain)
  • 1985 Two Cigarettes in the Dark
  • 1986 Viktor
  • 1987 Ahnen (Suspect)
  • 1989 Palermo Palermo
  • 1991 Tanzabend II (Dance Evening)
  • 1993 Das Stück mit dem Schiff (The Piece with the Ship)
  • 1994 Ein Trauerspiel (A Tragedy)
  • 1995 Danzón
  • 1996 Nur Du (Only You)
  • 1997 Der Fensterputzer (The Window Cleaner)
  • 1998 Masurca Fogo
  • 1999 O Dido
  • 2000 Wiesenland (Meadowland) Kontakthof – Mit Damen und Herren ab 65 (Kontakthof – with men and women of age 65 and higher)
  • 2001 Água (Portuguese for water)
  • 2002 Für die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen (For the children from yesterday, now and tomorrow)
  • 2003 Nefés (Turkish for breath)
  • 2004 Ten Chi
  • 2005 Rough Cut
  • 2006 Vollmond (Full Moon)
  • 2007 Bamboo Blues
  • 2008 Sweet Mambo Kontakthof – Mit Teenagern ab 14 (Kontakthof (?), with teenagers from 14 years and above) [12]
  • 2009 …como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si … (…like the moss on the stone…)[13]

1 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Dansens psykologi | Kunst bevegel sen

Comments are closed.