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Interviews, essays and commentary published by The Dance Current.

Friday, August 21, 2009

First Last Thoughts on Michael Jackson and Pina Bausch

By Seika Boye

When pop icon Michael Jackson and German choreographer Pina Bausch died within five days of one another in late June, my Facebook homepage was suddenly filled with the voices of dancers. The messages were mournful, celebratory, contemplative – thankful. YouTube clips of Bausch and her work recall a master whose vision so many in contemporary dance spend a career chasing – still. Footage of Jackson takes us into the music, the dancing, again, as good as the first time – still.

As people asked “And now Pina?” following the news of Jackson’s death, the two became locked in a strange association. An unlikely duo in life, their deaths so close to one another illuminated them, together, mega icons in the world of dance, whose influence and inspiration shifted, slid and cracked our ways of moving and seeing movement. Where would we be without them? And I wondered, what, if anything, can we see looking at them together?

First a few words from Anna …

Two reviews, written in the eighties by New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, help to encapsulate the impact of Bausch and Jackson at the heights of their careers.

About Bausch in October 1985, Kisselgoff wrote, “Like the Pied Piper, Pina Bausch is literally followed by followers – in this case, young dancers pleading to join her West German company. The impact left by the 1984 United States debut of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, which is appearing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a return engagement, has been deeply felt.”

Of Michael Jackson during his 1988 Bad tour: “… look past the occasional suggestive gesture and rotating pelvis, marvel at the backward gliding moonwalk and the isolated body parts – seemingly set into motion on their own – and you see a virtuoso dancer who uses movement for its own sake …. Yes, Michael Jackson is an avant-garde dancer, and his dances could be called abstract. Like Merce Cunningham, he shows us that movement has a value of its own and that what we read into it is provided by the theatrical context around it.”

Influence and Inspiration

To make sense of a lingering need to reflect upon Bausch and Jackson, I spoke in person with Toronto-based scholar and dance artist Darcey Callison and dance artist Ame Henderson and briefly on-line with improvising dancer Aimeé Dawn Robinson.

I began by asking whether or not Callison, Henderson and Robinson have been influenced or inspired by one or both of the recently departed.

Henderson, noting the big difference between influence and inspiration, stated, “Sure, I’ve been influenced by them both, it’s impossible not to be, but in terms of seeing mimetic influence repeated in my own work, no. Inspired? I have definitely been inspired – in terms of being given permission to do one’s own work …. Especially with Jackson, in his utter completeness of the way he worked as a performer … and, even more so than Pina, in every way he cannot be explained.”

Unlike Robinson, who was a young girl at the beginning of the eighties, listening to records, watching videos and “being inspired by Jackson’s intoxicating lack of inhibition”, Callison was then a money-strapped independent dancer. A personal TV was a luxury, one he did not have, so he missed the height of the Jackson craze. His artistic interests were also in a different field. He said of his community at the time, “In the eighties particularly, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t trying to emulate Pina, especially independent choreographers. There weren’t any videos but she visited Toronto in the early 1980s and performed Café Müller and The Rite of Spring at the Ryerson Theatre. Her influence was huge. I didn’t see the performance, but I heard about it.”

The Rite of Spring, Bausch’s celebrated 1975 work, which Callison later accessed on film and saw live, is, he says, “inspiring in terms of being uncompromising. It’s not narrative or literal, but you know these characters … and more than that, I think it’s about a struggle to bring life into the world … It was a seminal work, like Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table. It touches something so deep. It’s so visceral; it is so much a dance.”

Dance-Theatre and The Music Video

“How people put ballets together now is very different from what people were doing in the eighties.” Callison comments, “The images that people are willing to put together on stage at the same time, the movement vocabulary that they’re willing to put inside of a ballet, you would not have seen that on stage in the eighties. Pina Bausch opened that up. People are just more interested in personal movement, theatrical movement, idiosyncratic movement.”

As Bausch revolutionized contemporary dance and brought what we know today as dance-theatre to the stage, Jackson was rocking MTV. His record sales and the popularity of his ground breaking videos for singles from his Thriller album gave programmers no choice but to play them, at a time when most of the artists being given air time were white. The videos for Thriller, Beat It and Billy Jean gave the music video new power and consequently changed the nature of the recording industry.

Though their performance spaces and genres were different, the impact of Jackson’s and Bausch’s experimentation, risk-taking and imagination makes it impossible to look at a trajectory of dance on stage and television from the mid-1970s onward without looking to them as essential to understanding the progression of dance in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Look and Learn

Although Darcey Callison missed Michael Jackson in the eighties, he is well versed in the career and work of the pop star. About five years into his teaching career within York University’s Department of Dance, Callison encountered a student in a survey course for non-dancers who was completely self taught and had learned to dance entirely from Michael Jackson videos. Shocked and inspired, Callison realized he needed to learn more about the singer and in the process discovered that many, many, of his students had similar stories, or had at least been drawn to dance by Jackson. “I think his work is a real culminating point for dance identities, for the joy of dancing for a generation,” Callison says.

Henderson recalls being introduced to Bausch for the first time in a history course while an undergraduate student in the mid 1990s: “I was totally enraptured by her. I think it was really the beginning of a relationship I’ve had to many, many artists that is other than through seeing their work live … A lot of the references that I have are through text and images. This is interesting in terms of legacy. What are the means that we have to access the work or artists?”

The relationship to both Bausch and Jackson that the majority of fans and followers have, in Canada at least, is through film and television, photographs and text. Translating and communicating dance in person, being able to truly affect and move the viewer, is a lifetime’s challenge. Succeeding at this through dance on screen is another challenge altogether. Watching Jackson and Bausch in succession I asked, what is it?

Abandon, passion, necessity, belief – joy in performance – even when the theme may be tragic? One is literally moved to move. Robinson reflects, “We carry our memories inside of our bodies …. My happiest times as a performing dancer are those little moments when I have a flicker of the feeling of dancing to MJ in the basement.” Henderson comments: “It’s like a kinesthetic influence or exchange. It’s as if they’re dancing for their lives – always.”

Reading Repetition

Beyond the breadth of their influence, the artists share other common ground. The use of repetition and both artists’ preoccupations with expressing genuine qualities of humanity are among the motifs noted in both of their work.

Repetition was a theme discussed in the Kisselgoff articles referenced earlier. She quoted Bausch, “‘Repetition is not repetition,’ she says. ‘The same action makes you feel something completely different by the end. I repeat something and after three times, the person should react.’” And about Jackson she wrote, “Notice how many times Mr. Jackson takes your breath away with his rapid-fire flat-footed turns, his staccato gestures, his burst of movement from any part of the body and you will see that the steps and sequences are often repeated. But their rhythms and phrasing are changed along with the studded jackets; the words shower the same dances with a torrent of varying emotion while laser beams light up the imagined sky.”

Both artists also faced extreme criticism. Jackson’s sexual gestures and morphing physical appearance became more talked about than his music and Bausch was harshly criticized for muddying “pure dance” and for being inaccessible.

When I asked Callison about the trajectory between students being inspired by Jackson and students learning to appreciate Bausch he says, “I have tried very hard not to make a distinction between so called high and low art. I want students to go with what inspires them … One of my first challenges is getting students to understand that they are creating dances for the stage and not television. That is a first step in terms of trajectory.”

He continues, “I think the role of a BFA is to get students to understand that what the body communicates has ramifications.” He notes the overtly sexualized nature of video dancing today and the resistance students have to even discussing or acknowledging what these movements are saying. “Michael Jackson certainly did not make it easier. What students can learn from Bausch, if they are willing, is that there is a different impulse and way of putting things on stage. With Michael Jackson the hit is easy … Sometimes with Bausch you need to view things a second or third time. I think the window into what Bausch does comes from a sustained training in improvisation.” But, he realizes that it’s not for everyone, and he has great respect for the role of the entertainer. “I’d even love to be one in another life,” he says.


In the end, how does it matter that these artists have left us? Does it change the way we view their individual works, their bodies of work?

“I think the aura of an art work exists outside of the artist – our relationship with the art work is different than our relationship to the artist,” reflects Henderson. Will we see a resurgence of their influence with the swell of interest in the wake of their deaths? “I like the word re-calibrate,” says Henderson, “How do we make something make sense? Is it possible that, with the passing of these people, that their work has a different kind of sensibility in terms of how it is understood? How do we track forward and backward in time in terms of tracing their influence? My boyfriend says the musician Steve Earle talks about preparing for a post-Dylan world. There is something about the ‘post’. What are we moving towards?”

Post-Jackson. Post-Bausch. With the height of their influence having been over twenty years ago, can we already see where they have taken us? Will new reflections following their deaths take us to new places? In mourning those who inspired us artistically, is reflecting upon where they took us in the first place the ultimate homage, or is there more to it?

I remember encountering Michael Jackson, and dancing with him via the screen. Little him and little me, I wanted to feel what he was feeling and so I moved my body in an attempt. I was addicted and dancing became my life, like so many others. Somewhere around the age of twenty, with MJ in the far recesses of my mind, in a stuffy, poorly lit classroom choreographer and teacher Anna Blewchamp dimmed the lights and pressed play on a video of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheatrer Wuppertal. I don’t recall the work, but I recall the feeling. I think it is best described as relief. Dance could say more, move more, evoke more, than I had known up to then. I very likely cried.

In an homage to his artistic mentor and inspiration, Bob Dylan himself wrote Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie. It begins:

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’ yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race

… you get the point. And Dylan’s point, I think, is that Guthrie was, is, a destination. And so too are Bausch and Jackson, still. Their deaths have caused us to look back, reflect, re-calibrate. But I suggest we take it a step further. Let’s look back again in a few months, and in a few years. Let’s look at them with fresh eyes. Let’s allow how we change to impact the way we see them and maybe the way we see them will change too. And it will be like seeing them, again, for the first time.

Toward the end of writing this article the passing of the great Merce Cunningham was announced in the news. He was very present in the interviews and in the writing. He is another destination unto himself. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Seika Boye is a freelance writer, editor, marketing/communications consultant and dance artist. She is a former department editor with The Dance Current magazine and has been affiliated with Dance Collection Danse since 2004.

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