Empty Gestures


The Momentum of Gesture in Art and Religion (4)

There is a great but also terrible dance theatre piece by Pina Bausch.  The piece Barbe bleu (Bluebeard) is terrible because it relentlessly shows what becomes of dancing when the spirit is driven out of it: empty gestures. Pina Bausch is merciless here. It is dance theatre on the edge of unbearability for viewers, listeners and dancers.

In Barbe bleu, jumping angels play with jumping jacks and vice versa. They show movements like those of bodybuilders when they change their poses – or of marionettes when they slump to the floor because a pair of scissors cuts all the strings at the same time.

The second hand, which beats the empty time, chops up the movements of the dancers and Bela Bartok’s opera music. Dance and music jerk from standstill to standstill like jumping jacks whose strings are pulled to the rhythm of a metronome.

Jumping jacks, marionettes, wind-up, stand-up, wobble, pendulum and seesaw figures, robots – their mechanical action is without spirit. A mover pulls a string or threads, releases the tension of a rubber band, pushes or presses Enter. A gesture given by the mechanics and demanded by them sets the figures in motion. But movement without spirit, however amazing, has nothing to do with inspired dance. When people make mechanical gestures like a jumping jack, they are acting automatonically.

This is what makes Pina Bausch’s dance theatre piece Barbe Bleu so unbearable. It is the perfect staging of uninspired movement sequences, a bleak event. Nowhere in the sequence of the back and forth of the figures is there a gesture of consolation. For such a gesture cannot be performed by a mindless and soulless mechanical action. It is difficult to find dancing in a sequence of movements without a human embrace – even if the performers are continuously hanging in each other’s arms or on each other’s bodies.

Barbe Bleu, Bluebeard, is a fairy-tale figure who uses and consumes women like dolls. Pina Bausch shows that they do it and how they let it happen to them. Not in an erotic game of submission and domination, but in mechanical repetition of idle acts.

Mikhail Bakhtin once saw laughter as a revolutionary gesture. But in Pina Bausch’s piece, the women’s laughter does not have a liberating effect. The man of the house is laughed at. But it sounds like “put-on” laughter. Acted theatre laughter. Here Pina Bausch’s gaze becomes hard and cold. She stages women who constantly run against the wall. Until they stick to the wall. Bluebeard himself is staged as the mover in all this, as the one who pushes the button, pulls the strings, tosses women around as manikins and puts them down, sits on them until they exhale the last “ah” of breath and sink lifelessly from the chair.

But the acting men in the play also move mechanically. Their postures are prostheses that control them. Some of them appear like prototypes of robots from a time when the processing of binary codes was not yet confused with the process of linguistic inspiration.

What is astonishing is how clumsily the figures in the play move, however artfully technology may show itself here and there. They fulfil the destiny they embody. The accelerating repetition of the same, of embraces and their falling apart, can also be found in other pieces by Pina Bausch: frantic standstill to the point of breathlessness. In Barbe Bleu, this is not only bleak. The theatrical locking in of an event in neutral tightens the throats of the spectators. They become witnesses to rude mechanical acts.

It makes the piece almost obscene in a cold way, the way Pina Bausch plays with pornographic techniques. Time is fucked in the soulless technical back and forth. What is demonstrated in a deeply frustrating way is the behaviour of those who are acting out, who are lost in empty time. Their excitement resembles the precise restlessness of a mechanical clockwork. This awakens the wish that it might simply stop. But how would that be possible? What gesture could put a stop to it?

Many of the gestures in the play itself resemble the hand movement of Bluebeard, with which he stops and starts the movements of the actors and the music. A gesture of omnipotence. Here it becomes clear who is master in the house. But this too seems like an uninspired action. If this almighty were God, it would not be apparent how his actions could give him a reason to enjoy them. Moreover, Bluebeard is dead at the end.

Wim Wenders, who honoured Pina Bausch with a wonderful film, shows many versions of inspired and inspiring dances in this film. The dancers certainly play with mechanical gestures, but rather in the sense of a mechané, as Hölderlin understood it, with enthusiastic and inspiring skill. A woman as a human metronome, the climbing and tilting of a chair, the pounding of the Wuppertal suspension railway, the gestures of the seasons – all this shows Pina Bausch’s interest in what moves people.

In Barbe Bleu, Pina Bausch, whose other pieces are variations on the theme of “inspired gestures”, pushes movements to the extreme of automatism. What a magnificent achievement on the part of the dancers to submit to this. The result, however, remains an unbearable idle round dance that ultimately touches on the performances of automaton theatres and dance automatons. However, Pina Bausch does not also cover the events with the icing of music box music, which is supposed to suggest that such things have spirit and soul.

So once again the question: could a god breathe the breath of life into such events? A God from whom the spirit has not been exorcised? And what faith does it take to hope for this? In this respect, Wim Wender’s creed is very simple: “I believe in a God who watches us with friendly eyes. What form he takes, I don’t know, what kind of spirit he has, I can imagine.” “I am young, my ears hear promises, my mind is powerful, my eyes see dreams, my thoughts fly high and my body is strong.” So shouts enthusiastically one of the dancers in Pina Bausch’s piece “Full Moon”. Is this also a confession of faith – or a confession of the possibilities of art?

Robert Krokowski