Scene4 Magazine: "Paris: with Pina, Salome and Claude" by Renate Stendhal November 2011

by Renate Stendhal

Just for fun I sat down in my habitual cafĂ© and started counting. It's what I always do when I first arrive in Paris: I buy the Officiel or Pariscope, take a cafĂ© table at the window of Le Rostand, right across the Luxembourg Gardens, and get an overview over the fashions and cultural programs of the moment. 322 films this week, not including the special-topic "festivals" (roughly 35). Almost 100 theater plays. The usual. The opera season was to open with Salome the next day. The sirens of the present time were wearing tights in a half-loose, sexy way that let the fabric bundle up around the ankles and slip down to very high heels. Nothing had changed in the intensity of cafĂ© discussions, even though smoking was now only permitted outside, on the ever larger terrasse.

Scanning the alphabetic movie listings I knew even before looking that I would find what I was after. This time, it was not the rare Visconti or Pasolini, and the new Almodovar, The Skin I Live In, was only second on my list. (In Paris, the film still comes as La Piel Que Habito, which means it is shown with subtitles, version originale en exclusivité.) The film I'd been waiting for with growing impatience (for an entire year) was Wim Wenders' latest documentary about the legendary Pina Bausch.


Bausch, Germany's dance theater inventor, died in June 2009, before she and Wenders even got to the start of their documentary project. Then it was too late. Pina was dead, Wenders gave up. Not quite. When news came out that the company, the Wuppertaler Tanztheater, would continue under the direction of one of Bausch's oldest and most eminent dancers, Dominique Mercy, everybody picked up hope again. And Wenders picked up the project anew, calling it Pina (A Film for Pina Bausch) under Pina's famous and now even more poignant motto: "Dance, dance, or you are lost!"

Wenders recreated the 3-D technology with the single purpose of captivating Pina's dances, and in Europe,  he captivated even young audiences with this new cinematic "toy." Almost half a million people had already seen the award-winning Pina, (which is expected to compete as Germany's contribution to the Academy Awards next year). Ironically, only "chosen cinemas" now showed the film in 2-D, and that's what I saw in Paris. I had to wait for the Mill Valley Festival in San Francisco's Marin County to be able to compare both versions, but this first American showing ran into technological obstacles and had to be cancelled in the last minute.


The 2-D version left me somewhat underwhelmed. I am a great admirer of Bausch's work, especially the early, revolutionary work where violent clashes and contradictions dominated the relationships between men and women, holding up a fascinating mirror to a society that was just discovering sexism and violence against women. In her mid-career, Pina's violence got watered down like wine with water; the aging Pina mellowed and eventually turned into a classic version of herself. It didn't help that she invited ever younger dancers into her company, dancers too young to have to say much except wanting to dance rather than strip their souls and bodies naked for Pina's deeper purposes. She let them dance, but only to a point. She gave them solos, keeping her usual short reign over their movement style which made them all look alike – all of them versions of Pina herself.


Wenders' film follows this model by letting a good number of solos go by as an (unconsciously?) repetitive homage to the choreographer who always repeated the post-expressionist dancing style from her youth (she used to be the star of the Folkwang Ballet of Kurt Joos).  Every solo in Pina begins with a touching moment of the dancer facing the camera in a pose of reflection, looking for a word on the past, on Pina, her absence, what she taught them.  Here, Wenders reveals himself as a director of actors, coaxing authenticity out of every one of them. Then they are set loose for their dancing homage, not just to Pina Bausch but also to Wuppertal, the little industrial town in the Rhineland that bore the brunt of Pina's scandals before it gloried in her world success. The dancers twirl through diverse cityscapes and industrial sites, looking awkward,  artificial, bizarrely out of place, which may be the point, but it's not a good one. It's distracting and self-conscious. In the most kitschy segments the thing happens even in the Schwebebahn, the emblematic hang-gliding street-cars of Wuppertal,  while ordinary folk riding the train pretend not to notice. (Maybe in the 3-D version they disappear entirely in the far-away background – who knows?)


Thankfully Wenders also picked scenes from four full-group choreographies of Bausch's, three of her oldest and best – Sacre du Printemps, CafĂ© MĂĽller, and KontakthofThe newer excerpt is a playful water-romp from Vollmond (2007). In CafĂ© MĂĽller,  one of Bausch's most personal works (she grew up in a pub), Pina is shown still alive and onstage in the rare role she always kept dancing herself (Almodovar, in Talk to Her, shows a man watching Pina in CafĂ© MĂĽller, tears running down his face). But otherwise, the film sadly and badly lacks its title figure. Even if the film is about the glaring absence of the creator, choreographer, company director who controlled every tiny detail of her work with her mix of tender and iron-willed perfection, for the spectator to feel this painful absence would have to first make her present. Wenders quite inexplicably fails to do the obvious and necessary. You can count the seconds Wenders accords her:  as a young dancer of extraordinary beauty, as the still stunning older choreographer at work. In the end, Pina is not there in this homage to her.  There are some powerfully moving and some very funny excerpts from her pieces, but without the camera tricks of 3-D, they lack an original concept or vision of Pina Bausch. Wenders doesn't seem to know her work, or doesn't have a personal take on it. By comparison with Chantal Akerman's brilliant On Tour with Pina Bausch (Un Jour Pina m'a demandĂ©,  1983) his film is like an undemanding sampler platter in a restaurant — for the tourist who doesn't know the dark, mysterious richness and history of its creative kitchen.

(See the film trailer Here.)



Contrary to traditional opera expectations, the Salome in AndrĂ© Engel's production, at OpĂ©ra Bastille, hardly moves. Her "dance of the seven veils" has neither veils nor nudity. The heroine of Strauss's one-act opera from 1905 (based on the German translation of Oscar Wild's play, originally written in French for Sarah Bernhardt), shifts from one fairly simple white dress into another: sleeveless with a long, half-transparent skirt. She already seems to know that her voyeur stepfather's plea, "Dance for me, Salome!" doesn't necessarily mean what it implies. It doesn't matter to King Herod if or how she moves: just watching her body in private does the trick, having her close, so close that he can grab her and do a few waltz steps together as if they were a couple. In Engel's production Herod has sent out the entire court to be alone with the girl. The trick of arousal and delayed satisfaction, continuous promise (Salome lies on a low bench and slowly frees one leg from her white skirt), is perfectly supported by Strauss' rousing, exotic seven-minute passage, powerfully conducted by Pinchas Sternberg. Salome is convincingly incarnated by the German dramatic soprano Angela Denoke with her fragile looks and graceful body. Ironically, every movement of hers betrays a natural dancer. She does give him a few dancer's tricks and at the end drops onto her knees right before him and bends backwards as if to challenge him: take it if you dare! We are at the opposite pole from the recent Met staging with  AndrĂ© Engel, who became famous as a theater director in the seventies for staging plays in factories, hangars, hotels and other outlying spaces. Engel tones the spectacular story down to the the "banality of evil." The scenery itself is a banal mid-eastern courtyard, closed with trellises. No moon, no wind, not much light, no dark angels hovering in the shadows.


Herod (beautifully voiced Stig Andersen) and Herodias (Doris Soffel) could be any members of upper-class Judea at a party with too much wine. Danoke, gifted with a soaring, lyrical voice without any shrillness in  the high registers of Salome's rages and ecstasies, has the unself-conscious moves of youthful innocence and the stillness of a dear in the headlights. She is scared like everyone else of the prophet Jochanaan (Juha Uusitalo) whom she is not allowed to see. When she has seduced the soldier Narraboth to get John the Baptist out of his cell, she hides and trembles in anticipation. Like two children, she and Narraboth hold hands, a gesture that gives unusual poignancy to his suicide from her following disregard.

Indeed, the entry of the prophet is a blast: a storm cloud of water, sand and light spurts out of the gate before he appears – a great scenic effect that unfortunately doesn't carry. The man is dressed like any ordinary desert walker, fully clothed, with not a piece of that white cave-flesh visible that Salome so urgently wants to touch. The reduction to banality works against the prophet, and unfortunately neither Uusitalo's voice nor his acting lift him into significance. Denoke's approach to him has more of a childish, stubborn whim of wanting a toy and flying into temper tantrums rather than awakening to desire. Accordingly, he is hardly challenged. He throws his shoe at her to keep her at bay.

It is only when she gets her will and has his head on a platter that things stop being banal. The extraordinary entrance of the prophet finds a matching power in Salome's monologue with love and death. Here at the latest it becomes obvious why Denoke's star in European Opera has been steadily and almost stealthily rising to the top. She has sung the major exciting roles of the dramatic soprano repertoire, mostly to rave reviews. There is nothing she can't do – even Wagner, and hopefully the Met will soon notice, too. Suddenly Denoke's spoiled girl has grown as old and wise as the world.  Her plaintive, ardent voice, her insistance pressing the head to her chest like a mother mourning a dead child, sounds like a justified accusation of a dogma, John's religion, that is purist and hostile to the body. The luminous singer-actress brings Strauss's modernist master piece to the final provocative question: if this young precursor of Mary Magdelene had met Jesus instead of John, how different would their encounter have been?



Modernist provocation of a different sort was the topic at the Museum Jeu de Paume, in the Tuilerie Gardens. This one was all about gender and the sensation it created in Paris came from the fact that it originated at  the beginning of the twentieth century -- the same time Gertrude Stein discovered the "Lost Generation" and, together with Alice B. Toklas, established the first discreetly — but publicly recognizable — lesbian couple of modern times.

Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob) was perhaps the first performance artist/photographer of the twentieth century, a forerunner of gender-bending body and performance artists like Cindy Sherman, in the seventies. Sherman (in the French Wikipedia) is still regarded as a "pioneer" of post-modern photography. We had no idea how late, in fact, Sherman was.

What Stein did in writing, using all the possibilities of the English language to circumvent gender and dissimulate her being a woman, Cahun did in her obsessive mise en scènes for the camera. Her self-portraits subvert gender at every turn, presenting herself  as man, woman and everything in between and beyond. On the walls between the mostly small original photos, sentences from her published writings dominate the exhibition: "Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me. " Like Stein, she does it with wit and irony: "Under this mask, another mask." In one series she comically poses as a body-builder. With two black hearts painted on her cheeks and two coquettish curls of hair on her forehead, her outfit consists of training briefs, black leather or plastic cuffs and gaiters, with two black buttons marking her nipples on a T-Shirt that reads, "I am in training. Don't kiss me." Sometimes she turns herself into romantic-erotic princes or pirates in her very own 1001 Nights, reminding one of the German expressionist poet Else Lasker-SchĂĽler who went around Berlin dressed as "Prinz Jussuf of Thebes."  "The happiest moments of your entire life? Dreaming. Imagining that I am an/other. Playing my favorite role." But most often she seems deadly serious with her metamorphoses. She not only cut her hair short (Stein did it in 1926) but shaved it off completely – an unheard-of gesture for a woman of her time. Her pale look (in a dark undershirt with bound breasts) leaves her as indistinct as an alien, an insect, or a work of "art" -- like an estranged cousin of the marble "Sleeping Muse" by Brancusi.


Like Stein, Cahun had the unconditional support of a female life-companion, artist Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe), her stepsister with whom she had fallen in love at age fifteen. The two artists, with their male or male-sounding names, worked together on these photographs (sometimes doing double portraits) in the twenties; then Cahun, who also published her writing, joined the Surrealists and started working with photomontages and collages. This part of the exhibition was less interesting to me as her works lack the personal, intimate engagement and thematic of her previous work.

Like Stein and Toklas, Cahun and Moore lived together their entire life, but these two apparently did it as artistic equals, without the pronounced role division Stein and Toklas presented to the world. One other difference: Cahun and Moore were politicized and actively provoked and sabotaged the Nazi occupiers on the island Jersey, where they got stranded during the war. Their brazen acts of resistance, trying to inspire German soldiers and military personnel to drop their weapons and desert, got them a prison and execution sentence by the Gestapo. While Gertrude and Alice were "liberated" by the Allies, Claude and Marcel were saved -- just in the nick of time and to their frank regret-- from execution.
It remains to be seen if French people draw parallels and distinctions between these remarkable avant-gardists, Stein and Cahun, and their lesbian life-companions, while Stein is featured at the Grand Palais with The Steins Collect, here called Matisse, CĂ©zanne, Picasso... L'Aventure des Stein.

(See a French "trailer" of the Claude Cahun exhibition Here.)


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©2011 Renate Stendhal
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read her Blog


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