On the occasion of Walid Aouni's new show, Women of Qassem Amin (ongoing at the Gomhoreya Theatre until 17 February), Giuseppe Acconcia met with the choreographer
In Walid Aouni's new show, Women of Qassem Amin, there are clear echoes of the late Pina Bausch's Bamboo Blues -- performed at the Opera House last October. It was in search of overlap or affinity that I met with Auni; what I discovered was an artistic passion.
When did Aouni meet Bausch for the first time? "My first time with Pina Bausch was at the end of the 1970s. At the moment I was working with Maurice Bejart in Brussels. In those years, Pina presented Caf... Muller. All together, we were starting the great revolution of Dance Theatre with the help of the Belgian School and the influence of the Butoh (Carlotta Ikeda)... In 2002 I was in Wuppertal for a workshop at the Tanztheater, as a guest of Cairo's Goethe Institute. Thanks to Pina, I discovered a new way of working, dancing and drawing. Moreover, at this time we started a personal friendship. I met her humanity and I understood her silences. She is indescribable."
About the first and last performance of Pina's company Tanztheatre in Cairo, Auni says: "I needed three years to bring her company to Cairo. At the beginning of 2009, I met Pina a few times for this purpose. But she died two months after our last meeting. I wanted to organise a residence for her in Cairo, the way she had stayed in India and Turkey. We didn't have time."
The two plays performed by Tanztheatre (or Dancetheatre) in Cairo were Le Sacre du Printemps and Bamboo Blues. Fifteen men hurl six garbage bins full of earth onto the stage. They are arranging the scene for Le Sacre du Printemps, in which 36 dancers introduce the Rite of Spring, performing Igor Stravinsky's music. Women appear as the reflection of the earth with their sheer petticoats, while men look rough on the field with their bare torsos. A faint light comes from the left side, beams seep through windows as in Caravaggio's paintings. The fast female ride begins in joy; even the men's appearance doesn't upset the harmony. Couples form and suddenly separate in unintentionally promiscuous play. The experiences of the actors are confused with the rhythm of nature, the body starts wrestling with the hardness of the earth. And so, the clay increasingly clings to the dancers' bodies. A rude awakening recalls the power of chaos while nature is slowly selecting its victim: a small girl who appears suddenly in red.
The actors are exhausted, their heavy breathing infects the audience. The "dance composer", as she loved to be defined, always affirmed the importance of music as an inspiration for actors to create movements and words. Her 1975 Stravinsky triptych (Wind von West, Der zweite Frìhling and Le sacre du printemps) introduced a progressive separation with previous forms of choreography. Starting with her earliest beginnings as a member of the avant-garde choreographer Kurt Jooss's Folkwang School in 1955, Pina Bausch demonstrated her expressive and experimental tendencies. But only after 1975 did she define her own style as "total theatre" or a "theatre of experience". A trip into their lives brings the actors closer to happiness or further away from it. To this end, she gave them questionnaires on their childhood, their love life, applying to dance Jerzy Grotowsky's theories on the actor's body. This new attitude was already clear in Die sieben Todsìnden (1976), conceived to music by Kurt Weill, and Blaubart, Beim Anhæren einer Tonbandaufnahme, to music by Bela Bartok. The movements, emerging spontaneously during rehearsals, are slowly selected for the performance in connection with manifold props.
Who chose the two Cairo performances and why those two? "I didn't want Le sacre du printemps," Auni admits. "Of course, I preferred Pina's Nefes, made in Turkey. Stavinsky's music hides Pina's work. It is the same when Festivals choose my Shehrazad, there is more Korsakov than me in this play! Actually, I supported Bamboo Blues. When I was invited for the first representation in Berlin I thought it was perfect for an Arab public".
Pina's new way of dancing is clearly presented in Bamboo Blues. This performance, finished in 2007 in collaboration with Indian actors, was given at the Spoleto Festival last July, a week after the death of the choreographer. The performance starts off in an intimate register with six European and Asian women chewing in the middle of the field as a pack of lionesses. The games between men and women begin with sensational developments: a woman warms the sole of a man's foot with a lighter; couples parade obliquely; an Indian girl enters into the arms of her man with a fake smile; a man carries branches, another takes and loses his woman; a yellow ribbon invades the audience with a herbal aroma. Soft rock music, smells, a candid white set design unhinged by wind: the work initially has a New Age atmosphere. But the harmony is abruptly interrupted. A man drags a screaming woman on his back; another, hunted by two rivals, tries desperately to put on his clothes. The game among the genders becomes dangerous and violent. A woman tries several times to drown in a red bucket. Finally the nightmare disappears and the lioness's pack continues chewing in the wild forest, reclaiming love.
Unfortunately Pina was not in Cairo last October; how did Auni react to her death? "She had pneumonia and after five days in hospital she died without her company, who were working in Mexico." He sounds disconsolate. "Suddenly I started crying. If you watch the two documentaries about Pina's life that we programmed at the Opera House, you notice that she was all the time with a cigarette in her hand. At the beginning of 2009, I had presented an exhibition of my pastel sketches about Pina Bausch. One of them actually shows a thin woman with a cigarette above her head. This is Pina for me".
In Walid Aouni's article, published on these pages a few days after her death, we read, "her stage became a tune in which human relations intertwined one with the other teaching us a lesson on how to smile and how to shock our lost humanity".
The same subjects of Bamboo Blues are present in Kontakhtof (1978), where 26 dancers reflect on the true meaning of love. In the new version of 2008, proposed at the Stabile Theatre of Torino, Pina Bausch chose old actors, ranging in age from 58 to 70 years old. In a ballroom furnished with only chairs, a piano and a hobbyhorse, courtships, jokes, wild boogie-woogies take place. It is in Italy that the German choreographer, awarded the Golden Lion for her life's work at the 2007 Venice Biennale, has one of her best followers: Pippo Del Bono, artistic director of Torino Theatre. In his last performances ( Questo buio feroce and La menzogna ), the director and actor erupts on the scene, dancing. Even the subjects of Del Bono's plays recall his mentor's works: respect for diversity, relations between men and women, the body's diseases focusing on the tragic contradictions of postmodern society.
Bausch was a major influence for the present Lebanese choreographer, too. In Women of Qassim Amin, nine girls fight against the black shapes representing their veils. But they slowly free their shadows. Suddenly they appear, surrounded by men, showing a coloured and hidden reality.
"The work I am presenting at the Gomhoreya Theatre on Qassem Amin," Auni affirms, "is imbued with Pina's teachings. I took the way of thinking of Qassem, a revolutionary feminist, working on his biography. With Pina I discovered the long path of researching small things, pearls in the desert. In her auditions, which I was allowed to attend, after choosing a non-professional dancer, she would have him practise her classical exercises. Like Pina, I don't want my dancers to become stars, I'd like a dancer who works on ideas and becomes a set designer. Thus, I often ask my dancers questions. This is the goal of my performance on Qassem Amin, where I tried to work on the relationship between men and women. In this play, women are crushed and beloved."
Walid Aouni explains his method: "My art is a mutation of the teachings of my maestros and teachers. From Bejart I understood the power of life and death, with Pina I separated those two moments of the human being. Both were not gods for me but a continuous source of inspiration. So my method became a delirium on my self cleared of the multiplicity of dance tendencies in the present absence of teachers".
The death of Pina Bausch left a big hole in the theatre scene. But friends, students and followers all over the world still work and revise the incredible changes and teachings she introduced to theatre and dance. At the recent October events, Aouni brought her soul and energy to Cairo for the first time, encouraging a philosophical development of contemporary dance in Egypt.