Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Dance of Life: All that Jazz about Bob Fosse and Pina Bausch

Dancers with buckets of water splashing each other
Dancing is simply not my thing. Somehow my dancing genes cannot be bothered to be woken up, so I am left with zero dancing skills and practically no rhythm pulsing through my veins. But that does not mean I do not like it. On the contrary, I am strangely fascinated by this activity for various reasons.

In fact, dancing is often associated with mating rituals, which might incidentally explain a lack of mates in my younger years. It is attraction on a rather primordial level, where you do not only catch the partner's attention but also, if you are good at it, manage to raise their arousal. Add to that a little bit of booze for loosening up inhibitions, and you can get the party started.

But dancing is also a veritable art form. In terms of performance, if used and taken to the limits of its potential with its raw power and expression, it communicates more effectively than words ever could. Although I am a lover of words, of arranging and rearranging sentences in particular ways for desired effects, I must confess that the art of dance is a much stronger messenger.

When it comes to dancing, you are taking the power of music, already an incredible force on its own, and transposing it into an overall statement via deliberately chosen gestures. The choreographer, who might be yourself or another, is using the rhythmic movements of the body as a pen that engraves its message along with music, which serves as its paper or celluloid, onto the audience's heart and mind.

I would like to focus on two creative forces that have for me revolutionized the art of dancing and taken it to higher levels, namely the great minds and talents of Bob Fosse and Pina Bausch. Bob Fosse should have been credited (and patented) with the “Moon Walk,” as his smooth movements as the snake in The Little Prince demonstrate. Here in tune with the music and singing, his dancing captures and accentuates the character of the snake, the closest any human may come to its artistic embodiment.

Furthermore, I was impressed with certain sequences in his semi-autobiographical movie All that Jazz, especially its very sensual "air-otica" number. Although little is seen in terms of actual nudity, it insinuates and expresses erotic passion in no indeterminate ways. I can see how this particular dance number would cause furor among certain types of audience members because it breaks the boundaries of what many might call “decency,” without the actual depiction of graphic nudity.

I had a similar thought when watching the movie Chicago years ago, and only recently seeing its relation with Bob Fosse as its original creator / writer; I was impressed how dance manages to give an erotic quality to people. A person may be sexy and have, for example, attractive features, but eroticism, as opposed to pornography on the crude side of the spectrum, is the artful heightening or switching on of all those features and qualities for the purposes of arousal. Incidentally, we feel turned on by the performance.

This is the case in Bob Fosse's choreography, but to give another more recent example, consider the lap dance in Tarantino's Grindhouse segment Death Proof. Unlike the lap dance in Showgirls (which I have not seen by the way), in this one, the clothes stay on, and yet eroticism oozes out of every suggestive move, and the dance skillfully combines sensuality with aesthetic features.

In other words, arousal is not only about the stripping of clothes, but about the rhythmic, well-timed movements that elicit attraction from others. And this is one thing that Bob Fosse was excellent at, using movements to express sensuality; they transcend and excel spoken or written words and are, in fact, steamier than a scene depicting intercourse.

Pina Bausch, however, is in another category all together. I first stumbled upon her in Almodovar's brilliant Talk to Her. The few scenes and dance numbers impressed me so much that I felt compelled to watch Wenders' documentary Pina.

I was baffled at how expressive dance can become. In her more than capable hands, dance becomes a modern art form that manages to express philosophical issues, such as existentialism, isolation and death, to name a few. This is what makes Pina's work stand out for me. She transcends the borders of choreography making it not only entertaining and visually stunning, but also giving it artful gravitas.

How does she do it? She uses a number of props, such as water, rocks, umbrellas. She manages to give each of her dancers / characters an idiosyncratic expression, such as nervous gestures and obsessive behaviors. Hence she fleshes out their personality in front of our eyes, which embeds the characters in a narrative context. It feels as if we were following a fully engaging and developed story, a remarkable feat considering that she is using dance and music to do so.

We do not need voice-overs, we do not need words or explanations to know what they are thinking and feeling; it is the wordless rhythmic movements combined with carefully selected music that sets the mood and expresses the deep recesses of human sentiment; it is the dance of life that gives voice to the inexpressible just like dervishes that spin and turn fervently before the eyes of the divine.

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