Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Pina Bausch in Athens 2001

Pina Pausch: a play between bookends

Dance theatrical performances in the Herodus Atticus of Athens promise then to be something special, if under the guidance of Pina Pausch. All the more the surprise when even the magic atmosphere fails to affect the dance-actors and the audience instead of being satisfied, turns aggressive against school children wishing to leave earlier than what the play foresees, namely endless and boring repetitions.

In what may have promised to be at least a different evening turned out to be embarrassing and even a scandal. For stealing people’s money out of their pocket was not the only sin committed that evening. Far worse was the attempted mockery of the audience with outdated methods. The play or dance performance did not manage to develop anything. Instead of dance transformed into theatre and vice versa words understood as the movement of the body, the performance was a parody of expectations in a society bored to death but still attracted by the famous name.

The play attempted a reflection of society in which weddings and birthday parties come and go, in which childhood dreams and anguishes about the future intermingle while everyone becomes an isolated individual in the crowd. There is no happiness, no true sadness to talk, never mind dance about. Everything is simply a nonsensical performance in a theatre where the dialogue about values has gone astray and nothing is left but the reference material to what everyone knows about in a media world filled with commercials and above all the language of the cartoons: oversimplifications of reality.

So let it be said quite openly in any living democracy we can be of different opinions and especially it will be important to develop such criticism that it does justice to both the play written in the 80’s and to the performers. Hence all what follows in criticism should be taken as a kind of feed-back to those who produced this show for a time and place not only in Greece, but in a special building without curtains and no roof – one of the jokes made that evening about cultural heritage still amongst us as living evidence of the past, in order to underline again as parody what is so ‘fantastic’ in this life we are experiencing right now.

Why boring? Why call it a scandal? When the triviality of the language is really about an intellect unable to reflect that out of some perspectives to be taken seriously, then something is amiss. Such an intellectual, equally trivial play misses out of the contrast between tragedy and comedy and is, therefore, merely capable of establishing a beginning and an end, but unable to give the in-between any meaningful content. It is like the modern communication tools, much technology, but empty talk pepped up by cheap images of what is apparently desirable, men’s and women’s legs included. Indeed the performance in this ancient theatre failed to convince even though there are those who like this kind of absurdity, this nonsensical refutation of meaning in life. Hence the best way to describe the achievement of the performance: it managed to put in place two supporting devices at both ends, so that the books to be put then on the shelf would not fall off. Yet the performance never did manage to fill that shelf. Instead of books quite different materials were put there instead.

To begin with, each of the comments made here have a double meaning. The logic can be twisted into a kind of critical reflection about what is happening to the intellect. I remember when returning to Germany after fourteen years of absence (I had left at the age of twelve), the first thing I did was to go into a bookshop on Ludwigsstrasse in Munich, there where also Thomas Mann had written and many others like Paul Klee experienced the transition of the times before and after First World War. But then there was the destruction of the Second World War. When in that bookshop my first and immediate question to the bookseller of knowledge was what in his opinion did they fail to do after 1945? His reply is significant for the title of this criticism of Pina Pausch’s performance, for he said everyone was busy rebuilding the houses out of the ashes the bombs had left behind, but the bookshelves remained empty.

Indeed, physical things are easier to reconstruct then the soul. As Paul Klee said after the experiences of First World War, the terrible destruction of everything made beauty become a thing of the past, something only to be remembered and by necessity this made every expression of beauty become abstract.

By the time Second World War was over this destruction had gone deeper and was more invisible than ever before. One of the few who anticipated this problem was Sigmund Freud for he knew that everyone would accept someone bleeding as being sick, a wounded person, but if someone had experienced bomb shells after bomb shells, but without leaving so much as a scratch on his body, then no one would believe the wounds of the soul: the neurosis, the fear and also the other more deeply rooted emotions like fear or anger.

The performance did touch upon that one point when the dancing group of men and women making up a multi-cultural reflection of reality, started to be entangled in a beauty contest. One of the tests to be gone through was ‘how many scars have you’ and everyone rushed to the microphone and exaggerated and exaggerated as to where there were still more scars to be discovered. But strangely all of them interpreted scars to mean but visible wounds: physical traces of destruction. At that point, the performance had failed to convince and subsequently the audience did not laugh anymore for the wit of the thing had passed like the times in which no one learned that the ‘end game had been played to a disastrous end’.

However, the beauty contest did take on a more serious note when they all had to walk to the back, with their backs to the audience and each one of them was asked what do you fear. Here invisible things were mentioned. One of the most telling fears was when someone tells you they love you!

But let us move one notch further on this bookshelf, to the opening itself, for at the beginning was not the end, but the soup bowl. The memory worked. Someone sits alone on the stage and tries to spoon into his mouth the soup he does not wish to finish. Associations of awful food contested by all children but forced down their throats by the parents meant to deploy the trick: one spoon for papa, one for mama…..

This figure with soup bowl and chair reappeared everywhere. We know the cartoon language from which it is borrowed. In the mad scene of everyone running to the beach, to the horse races, into a super market, you have to spot and find the person with the red cap. Continuity in the mad world of the cartoon is restored by finding the figure that carries throughout the changes the same identity - no matter what has happened.

This person became a silent witness of many configurations unfolding in the subsequent birthday party later transformed into a picknick, games contests, sleeping hour and as said already above beauty contest. It brought back the old games for there was no surprise, nothing unexpected and therefore no future. Instead all were trapped in that absurd space called theatre used to reflect the reality that was like theatre or supposed to be as it was performed out of boredom to produce boredom in order to testify to boredom – usually played when idle people get together to celebrate a wedding.

Time and place for such boring events do not matter but the stage of the Herodus Atticus had to be transformed into a lawn that was sprinkled during half time with no one in the audience quite sure did the workman belong to the script or was it a part of the alienated inventory required for this play in a place that has been witness of many wonderful performances under open skies and in the vicinity of the Acropolis.

Things in this theatre become magic when the dialogue with that ancient past carries the voice all the way up to the highest seats, there were the winds cool more the faces than of those seated down below, near the stage. Thus it was most telling in this performance requiring the over alienation of time and space so that the stage became more like a sub-urban back garden, that the human voice was not heard. Instead the uncertainty in the acoustics of the place made them decide to use microphone – a sign of no longer trusting that the human voice could carry very far in an age filled with honking cars and other noises of the city with its many variations of cheap entertainments.

Yet to continue the unfolding of the performance: the birthday party started with a twist when the leading dancer recited in perfect English: Happy Birthday ‘to me’. Self inflated ego does not allow the dance: not the dance of Antiquity like Cassandra would have loved, in order to let out her anguish nor the dance of pain of the one who has to carry the cross. Ancient symbols were discarded. It was the mimic cry of the recent past, a childhood swept under the carpet of generalizations about such a past, as if it ever existed in such cartoon like forms. Here then comes the key point and critical remark about the language used all evening linked with bringing blankets on the stage, spreading them out, doing it nicely as mother would do, lying down, not finding the comfortable position, rolling on the back, to the side, if only to get up again to pick up the blanket and leave once again the stage. What for?

The ability of the cartoon like language, and there were too many broken references to this cultural agglomeration of French, German, English and Greek, is to make forget the differentiated language of reality. It is like forgetting to dance. Perhaps that was the point of the entire play and of this evening: you can dance only under certain conditions as it is not possible to laugh all the time, but in the beauty contest the instruction was ‘keep smiling’ and make ‘winky, winky’ (to the audience).

Kolakowski, the Polish philosopher said it very accurately: a society that has lost its paradise will not really try to search for it but rather attempt to replace it with some kind of symbolic unity – peace and harmony between the relatives and the children included – and yet the outcome will be but a bad cartoon.

The entire evening I could not believe what I saw. Here, in this wonderful theatre were past and present intertwine under open skies, where young people wishing to be dancers came to see the performance because they were attracted by the big reputation of Pina’s dance repertoire, the audience was abused in more than one way. For if the only outcome was that the younger generation was lost, because they could not see and understand why there was no dance, then this kind of cheap intellectual joking about how materialistic the world has become is too trivial to be taken any longer serious. It may have been shocking in the eighties, but no more today. This is why the showing of the ‘ass’ is not shocking nor a mockery, but a scandal in quite a different sense: it reflects the poverty of theatre language.

Indeed, the greatest criticism to be said is that the play lost the future generations. What took then place in the audience as a result of this huge discrepancy between expectation and reality was most telling, but it should not be understood as an affirmation for such kind of performances. On the contrary, even acceptance that some may wish to stay till the bitter end way after midnight, then at least the younger generation has a right to leave and should not be hindered by those who wish to endure the performance. When they did wish that the boring performance is not to be disturbed, that tells a lot about the fake order of things such plays install. For as the children wanted to leave, those sitting near the aisles refused to make way. The steep inclination of the seats in that theatre gave them the power to hinder those who wished not only to leave, but to vote – as did the East Germans when they did not fight their own state, but left for the West – ‘with their feet’. This message has to be understood by Pina and her company. By the time that performance ended, half of the audience was gone and mostly it was the younger one.

By comparison, I experienced for the first time that theatre 1966 when Rostoprowitsh played on his cello with the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. The audience then was composed of the men wearing white shirts, while the women came in their colored dresses. It made a stark but beautiful contrast. There was magic in the air and respect between audience and performers. Enthusiasm had then no borders. They encouraged and wanted to hear again and again Rostoprowitsh. He played outside the planned program three extra solos at the request of the audience and with the entire orchestra granting him that privilege. Three times he played Bach and every time he announced it with his big bass, there was laughter, but out of a deep joy to see someone loving Bach so much. Sincerity and lightness combined then to bring about a silence of listeners.  After the concert many of us went down and talked with this great lover of the cello who like Louis Armstrong would take up the contact with the audience. The contrast to 2001 could not be greater even though two performers went through the ranks to offer a cup of tea (during a stifling conversation of ‘dear me’) and the entire group dancing at the beginning and end past the rank and file to make out of closeness visible their marked faces of professional dancers who could, if given the freedom, make the law of gravity be suspended for a moment of lightness.

But like serving tea as a performance but not to have any real contact with the audience, the old idea of ‘Publikumsbeschimpfung’ or even worse ‘Publikumsverarschung’ set the modalities for what was to come, namely a series of cheap tricks to entertain an audience that hungers exactly for what the producers interpret wrongly and instead of letting creative energies free, trivialize everything for what purpose? Nothing is more painful then to see such abuse of the intellect. With it goes a complete lack of love for people. Instead collective images are conjured up and the symbolic unity begins to manifest itself. Then the fake commonness being reduced to what apparently everyone can understand shows itself always in a readiness to make a joke about the foreigner who cannot pronounce the own language so well, but then he or she deserves an applause for trying. One does not need to mention that xenophobic tendencies go together with national pride in one’s own culture, therefore language. It fails simply to mention that a language reduced to a code known only to insiders is not really accessible, but it becomes a silly yard stick to measure not the length of the ‘penis’ (excuse the direct reference to triviality made in that play all the time), but of the intellect: does one’s own still measure up against the other. Divide and rule is not the game being played, but the vanity being taught a lesson or two on how to appear superior and therefore no reason to fear that one’s own culture is inferior.

Somehow the play got lost in the wide open space transmitted by Ancient Greece through such a site remaining half completed. Nothing more can be said except this thesis taken from Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg, namely that boredom was the cause of First World War.

O yes, one should not forget the other things put on the shelf – instead of books and the soup bowl at the beginning, there were put in place birthday like puddings and the magic rope that cannot be cut – yes, the trickster failed to entertain the guests. All that made the attempt at cheap entertainment into a mad scramble for the best alignment with those who wishes to not only occupy, but also worship chairs. Without doubt the main and only social thesis of the evening was, therefore, nothing more, nothing less: everyone is for him- or herself, couples don’t last (hence the skepticism as key atmosphere surrounding the marriage) and if nothing else helps, then scream, shout but do not dance it out. Hence the key impression, but not really convincing, appeared to be such trivialities exist that this manifests itself like a main constraint throughout not only the play, but of reality, namely the negation of the dance. It was not convincing because in reality there is dance and with it goes another movement known for using constraints to become creative in body and mind. Indeed, great dances are possible when the intellect and body go together. Thomas Mann calls that a sign of democracy. It becomes known through even a handshake. You feel whether or not that unity exists in that person.

That question of democratic could have been interesting but the political dimension was left out completely. No wonder then that the usual criticism of idle society does not catch and instead there has to be the artificial border between the normal and the other, the performers and the audience. Thus surprisingly there was not missing the crazy one – yes, she was included in the script. So she started to break the norm of the group by first making weird movements at the back of the stage and later on she had the stage all to herself. This was after the intermission when she started to dance with the water coming out of the hose used for sprinkling the lawn. But her movements were confined to just making the hair become wetter. She could not take up really the dialogue with the water. Her feet had but a few interesting steps. Still later, in another solo piece, she approached again with hesitation the other reality, but stayed inside the corset to perform a mere mimicry of the Greek dance.

Only at the beginning and at the end – the bookends so to speak – the entire group could show something what is inherent in the magic of Pina’s eye for dance becoming theatre and vice versa. Still, the sameness at the end as was the case at the beginning made the dance transform play into restoring calmness: as if nothing had happened in-between. Unlike theatre were the actors need to re-interpret constantly so to make the thing become alive, here the negation of the dance by remaining just the same underlines but the tragic of pan-Romanticism inherent in Pina Pausch’s outlived approach to the dancing theatre.

By having negated all contents of life without knowing how it was lost, such an unreflected intellectual exhibition of the self comes along on crutches: the old theories about society and hence the audience. Therefore, this performance was just boring since the one starting out with a soup bowl never found apparently a chance to grow up despite being a witness of many scenes linking the absurd with the trivial, but not in the sense Albert Camus did it. Rather the sameness and the likeness to scenes close enough to remember ‘Carbaret’, but just slightly off, that is what transformed this into a single hope everyone has apparently left to cling to in the end. Nothing has changed, life continues in the same dull way. It reminds of Goethe’s famous little poem about the nightingale:


Die Nachtigall war entfernt,

Der Fruehling lockt sie wieder,

Nichts neues hat sie gelernt,

Singt schoene alte Lieder.


The nightingale was gone,

Spring entices her to come back,

Nothing new she has learned,

Sings still the same old, but beautiful songs.


If anything can be said to the performers, it is not their fault that the aesthetical balance between audience and performance broke down rapidly as it became clear endless repetition do not make up an explanation for the negation of the dance. Unfortunately the cheapness of the piece was way out, somewhere caught in-between those times when DADA was active and the Surrealist shock had not yet managed to jolt the audience out of its false alliance with lies. That was sometimes before Second World War. Since then much has happened, but to misuse the ancient theatre to demonstrate an ignorance of how times have changed, that is not justified.

Thus in reference to Seferis who once said ‘when the tourists leave with the late afternoon boat, then they give the beaches back to the winds’, it can be said with certainty that when everyone had left that performance, then the Herodus Atticus shall be given back to the memories of the stones and the half standing walls, memories including such magic moments as experienced in 1966, but unfortunately not this time.


Hatto Fischer

Athens 10.7.2001

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