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And the joke goes on and...: AHNEN Ahnen

Pina Bausch, 1987


Julie and the can of coke

… Sombreros

The above list is suggestive of prompts and props for comedy sketches, and I suppose that this resemblance is not wholly untrue. Actually, it is a list of scenes from Ahnen, a 1987 work of dance-theatre by the German choreographer Pina Bausch. Ahnen is a collage of comedic moments and refined choreographic improvisations. It is at times funny but also disturbing. It is absurd, and it is tender. I can’t really explain what it is about other than joy, cruelty and humanity, played out amidst a surreal landscape of cactuses. And anyway, Bausch didn’t want her work explained or understood; she just wanted you to pay attention.

Her audience’s attention is further honed (and tested) when watching Ahnen’s cinematic counterpart; AHNEN Ahen. Directed by Bausch, AHNEN Ahnen might be described as a documentary that follows the making of Ahnen, however rather than explicitly reveal the meaning behind the choreography or shed light on the personal lives of the performers – as is de rigour with most documentaries – Bausch’s enigmatic and oblique film dwells closely on the mental stamina of her company, and specifically the exhaustive labour and precarious dialectic of forming (and performing) a joke.

AHNEN Ahnen begins in a rehearsal studio. The camera cuts between shots of dancers warming up, putting on their costumes and walking through scenes. A man is sitting at a small round table, like those found in traditional cafes, he has large fake breasts protruding from beneath his knitted navy jumper. On the table is a rectangular silver tray upon which sits a coffee pot and a china cup. The man with the protruding breasts mimes the action of stirring, followed by drinking, although he does not drink from the cup but some invisible object held between his thumb and forefinger. ‘It was lovely the way she ate the soup, wasn't it? Unfortunately I haven’t got a soup bowl here but it was amazing how she did it’ he muses. Cut to dancers changing in and out of costume. Cut to a tall lithe figure in a striped fuschia pink balaclava mask, their face is entirely obscured but the long brown hair trailing from the nape of the neck to the small of the back betrays them as Bausch. She goes and takes up her directorial position behind a long table and writes on a pad of paper, she is still wearing the balaclava. Cut to extreme close-ups of dancers watching rehearsals.

For quite some time we don’t see any dance, just the reactions of those watching; some of the company watch alertly, some observe from behind their hands, some chew upon their cuticles, sometimes they get distracted and chatter amongst themselves ‘That’s why I won’t go to bed with Melanie’, some are asleep. In AHNEN Ahnen the development of Ahnen is revealed primarily through responses; boredom, laughter, tears. And, from the sheer variety of responses it's hard to know if performers are watching the same thing - is this a comedy show or funereal procession?

Eventually we return back to rehearsal scenes where narrative vignettes complete with props and costumes are beginning to take shape and accumulate. A woman carries two black stilettos in her mouth and lowers herself to the ground, men in sunglasses and tutus prance and pose, a man pricks himself with acupuncture needles whilst his companion peels an orange, a woman tapes cans of coke to the soles of her pink satin shoes, then teeters on her makeshift stilts (Julie and the can of coke), a man runs his lips across a bunch of bananas (wind pipes) as he pursues a woman sweeping the floor (Broom/Banana), a man in his underwear carries a chalkboard - from stage left to right - that reads ‘Die 3 Sombreros’ (Sombreros).

Some of these scenes are tried out with different performers or music, sped up or slowed down. Bausch’s calm controlled whisper frequently interrupts the action; ‘Could you try again…?’, ‘Yes, a bit like that’, ‘That doesn’t work with that music does it?’, ‘No, I think it’s odd, isn’t it?’, ‘This part isn’t really clear’... But for the viewer, no part ever seems really clear. Just when you start to piece together a movement sequence it is denied, untied, retried, cut to the next. It's rather hard to make sense of it all.

Freud wrote that the pleasure of the joke ‘is derived from its simultaneous sense and nonsense’, it seems AHNEN Ahnen (and Ahen) are charged with this dialectical energy too. When a scene starts to make sense it flips into non-sense. If the joke operates between sense and non-sense, then it also balances between pleasure and displeasure. Cultural theorist and scholar Laurent Berlant confirmed ‘the funny is always tripping over the not funny, sometimes appearing identical to it’. Now that is very Bausch.

Pina Bausch sourced her choreographic material from the world around her. Bausch’s curiosity was directed toward human relations and whilst compassionate she was also confrontational; lifting movements from daily life to expose ideological structures of daily life. Bausch said ‘the time in which we live, the time with all its anxieties is very much with me. This is the source of my pieces’ . Her predilection for the violent and anxiety inducing has been interpreted as nihilistic, reinforcing power-dynamics between victim and aggressor. Well surely there is nothing funny about that? Not necessarily, but as Slavoj Zizek explains, a joke is ‘a little piece of reality . . . related to ‘dirty’ topics’, such topics encompass death, violence, humiliation, degrading sex acts, racism or sexism where ‘the whole enjoyment of a joke is that there must be someone who is hurt, humiliated’. Bausch set these ‘dirty topics’ in motion (often through relentless repetition) not to reaffirm dominant and submissive sexual politics but rather challenge her audience to interrogate the fragile boundaries of the gesture; the context-dependent transformations of humour into humiliation. In AHNEN Ahnen we witness a man take hold of a woman by her hair and thrust her face into a (soft) wall, over and over and over again until they both casually walk away. The act is indeed violent but its mechanical repetition combined with both performers' accepting placidity drains the gesture of expected aggressive theatrics leading it into the terrain of absurdist satire.

Bausch was attentive to the axiological (and indeed anxiogenic) nature of gestures, that they contain within them the potential to provoke multiple, opposing affects. She was concerned with the relationship between opposites and explained of her choreography ‘I always went with the extreme, always the opposite… a sort of complete back and forth’. Similarly the action of comedy, as Berlant has noted ‘as both an aesthetic mode and a form of life, just as likely produces anxiety: risking transgression, flirting with displeasure, or just confusing things in a way that both intensifies and impedes the pleasure’. Bausch does not hope for her audience to reach a general consensus as to whether a scene is funny or not-funny, rather the action revels in being ‘epistemically troubling’, in confronting the audience with the confusion of either-or. The comedy act is thus a test-site for the relation between pleasure, danger and authority, emotional proximity and moral detachment.

Near the end of AHNEN Ahnen Bausch says to her performers ‘Jokes are also poems’. This statement touches on something very important about the nature of jokes, poems and indeed dance – they are all phenomena that perish if they are explained away. They can be felt and known but never imprisoned in explanation. And, just like the poem, the joke and the dance - if they are to speak to the human condition - must be meticulously composed and timed. If the comedian or dancer misses the beat, if they drag it out, or rush to the punch-line too soon, then the affective charge goes stale. Bausch’s cool voice interrupts; ‘I’m sorry it’s far too long now… so that part before Francis begins, that would have been enough. Let’s try it again’. Cut to black.


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