I’ve traveled and worked in dozens of countries around the world, and usually find something about the experience that makes me appreciate the United States all the more when I return. Odd things, usually, like safe building codes and the rule of law. But sometimes traveling shines a spotlight on what needs changing in this country. It took a one-woman performance art show in Oaxaca to make me pay attention to genetically modified foods and multi-nationals like Monsanto. And ironically this Saturday a Chilean friend and former model is organizing a protest march and information session at Waterfront Park in Beaufort. Josefina Blanc isn’t trying to radicalize her new home town; she just wants us to pay attention to a policy and apathy that our country is foisting on the rest of the world. Our ambivalence about genetically modified foods has consequences far beyond the junk we feed our children. I just didn’t realize that until I met a dancer who goes by the name Violeta Luna.
We heard about her show on the street, a flier thrust into the hands of tourists passing by a beautiful Colonial building in downtown Oaxaca. I knew, vaguely, about the tortilla riots in Mexico after NAFTA flooded the market with genetically-modified corn so cheap that local farmers couldn’t compete. Honestly though, it was the chance to sit under the graceful arches and magnificent tile work that motivated me to go inside for her performance. But once the music started, I couldn’t take my eyes off Violeta Luna.
She transformed herself from a beautiful indigenous dancer into what threatens her people most: genetically modified corn. It was a dramatic, shocking, creative representation of what she feels has happened – she “modified” herself on stage, literally injecting herself with water and layering artificial coverings over her body until she almost suffocated. At one point she left the stage and walked to where I was sitting. I was embarrassed, and a little ashamed. It’s my country that is pushing this unnatural process on hers. She knelt before me and patted clay over my legs and feet. I felt conspicuous and yet it was logical that she assumed I had the power to spread the word beyond Oaxaca. But when I looked into her eyes I saw so much more. It was not so much a symbolic anointing of a white woman in a crowd of natives but an offering of protection.
On my trip to NY this summer to research Byrne Miller’s early life, I had the chance to see the 3D film “Pina” by Wim Wenders. I have never been so stunned by a film, though Wim Wenders’ work often leaves me speechless. Gary made me watch Wings of Desire when we first met, and that confused but delighted me. Then Buena Vista Social Club came along and literally awakened the world’s interest in Cuban music. Lisbon Story made me fall in love with Madredeus – the Portuguese Fada singer. I went from thinking Wenders had a knack for being in the right place at the right time to realizing he was equal to the genius he admired.
Wenders has said that he waited, almost all his life, to do a film about Pina Bausch, the great German modern dancer. It wasn’t until 3D came about that he realized why he’d waited. Unfortunately she died during the making of his latest masterpiece, but perhaps it freed Wenders to make, at last, a love story. He abandons the tradition of using archival footage as the thread – he stages Pina’s dances in modern-day Germany- in hanging trains and busy intersections, by the sides of swimming pools. He couldn’t afford the rights to the original music of her dances, so he just edits the numbers to a soundtrack that only a director who loves Fado and Tango and Son could imagine. He didn’t dabble in the usual documentary interview process, playing on our sympathies by pointing out all the hardships Pina faced. He didn’t try to draw a picture of the whole woman, her role as a wife or mother or dance pioneer – though she was all three. He let her work speak for all of that. “Pina” has no plot, but it is more riveting than any drama I have ever seen. The 3D effects are cool, but Sunday in Savannah I’ll just as happy to see the choreography the way she did when she created this amazing body of work. I may even sit through all three showings – 2, 5 and 8pm.
Pina Bausch reminds me so much of Byrne Miller — even though Pina was born 30 years after Byrne. They were both at the bleeding edge of modern dance in their time and their country. In my research I’ve learned how very influenced Byrne was by German dancers, how the art form could be argued as born there. She spoke of Pina’s predecessors, like Harald Kreutzberg, as so powerful to watch they were almost frightening. Even Pina Bausch’s mantra “Dance, dance …otherwise we are lost” reminds me of something Byrne used to say. “First there were people and then there was dance, because the people just needed to move.”