What is a story? Why is it that humans fill their heads with words and pictures and dreams of both reality and fantasy? And how do we get ideas? What are we inspired by? Are stories told because we like to document our life experiences? Or escape from them? Is it because we wish to express joy or vent our pain? Do we tell stories to celebrate or to recognize that there is evil in the world? Are stories to instruct or to confuse? As much as I ponder this issue, I will never come to an succinct reason why stories are told in our world…ultimately, every story has a different purpose of expressing ideas both factual and fiction, and each storyteller has a different motive.
Behind all these storytelling motives, the mysteries of “the story” go back for millenia- from pictographs on the walls of caves to ancient writings captured on crumbling papyrus to illuminated manuscripts to the many Sacred Books to Jane Austen to David Sedaris to Saturday Night Live to the instantaneous storytelling of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Humans have been expressing themselves in the form of plots and morals for eons- sharing their life experiences in the form of metaphor, poem, prose, and fine art. And the storytellers have gone hand-in-hand with the listeners, who look to stories for instruction, or even to imitate. At the end of the day, we are inevitably products of all that we’ve come in contact with and the stories we’ve been told: from friends, books, quotes, our schooling, travel, interactions, movies, observations of nature, hikes, camps, our parents, our significant others, etc. We are one constant consumer- perpetually absorbing and processing information. And we use this information to process more information and make decisions on what direction to go in next.
In light of the Oscars approaching this weekend, it is an appropriate time to discuss the role of film in telling stories. A couple weeks ago, I saw a film that changed how I view this constant consuming process of storyteller and listener and especially how our experiences interact with stories- about how the reality and fantasy are constantly interacting. The film is called “Pina” and it is directed by Wim Wenders in honor of Pina Bausch, a German dance choreographer who led the dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, Germany before her death in 2009. Her death was extremely unexpected, occurring only 5 days after a cancer diagnosis and only a few days before shooting was to begin on “Pina.”
My impression of this woman’s legacy to the world of dance and the world at large was apparently significant, if the incredibly inspiring and nurturing leader that was depicted on the screen is anywhere near reality. The dancers who performed in her company were all given opportunities to express their admiration for their teacher, most of whom she had mentored for 25 years. It was quite moving learning some of the things she told them on how to express their art (paraphrased): “I am in all of you, just as all of you are in me,” “Dance for Love,” “Make me scared,” and the most poignant: “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” Pina’s perception of dance as a medium of storytelling- to inspire love, fear, longing, belonging, and community- was quite enlightening and made me question my role as a consumer of storytelling and also question my identity as storyteller, roles that go hand-in-hand .
The movie also deconstructed my idea of dance and movement, taking it away from the stage and out into the naked world, a stark contrast that demonstrated the powerful role of dance, movement, and non-verbal communication as storyteller in our everyday lives. Lewis Segal, former LA Times dance critic, was quoted saying, that Pina “was famous for saying that she was not as interested in how people move as in what moves people. She wanted to tell a story.” Well, the director and cinematographer worked as a brilliant pair to manifest Pina’s philosophy on screen, taking her dances and first showing them through old footage of Pina herself portraying the story, then showing the same choreography re-staged with her company, and finally changing the setting almost mid-step, placing the dance into the landscape itself. Dancer slumped over a table, sitting in a chair immersed in the middle of a rocky, flowing stream. Dancer pirouetting through fall leaves with a leaf blower. Dancer dressed in a full-length ball gown, integrating herself and the choregraphy into an ultra-urban location on the shoulder of a downtown street. Dancer using raw veal as a cushion in her pointe shoe as she moved gracefully amongst cargo hangers in an industrial area. A male pas-de-deux of longing inside an entirely glass building, revealing a verdant forest directly outside. Each setting was more breathtaking than the next. The movie seemed to be asking the audience through the story of Pina and her dancers, “What inspires you? And how do each of us express this in our daily lives? Can we tell our stories through movement too?”
While watching Pina, Shakespeare’s famous quip, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” kept manifesting itself in my mind. Old Bill seemed to have been thinking on similar lines to the director of “Pina”- our experiences are as real as the stories we tell in books and plays, and on stage at the ballet. Are these stories really as removed as we make them seem in their artistic and creative forms? After all, their creators lived in the world- why can’t the stories do the same? We are all stumbling blindly in this life, seeking the answers to our musings of how to form our lives. We discuss our uncertainty with each other, combining our various perceptions on how life has gone for each of us into a semblance of truth. And we consult storytellers, who share with us their realities in hopes of commiserating and even in hopes of learning something. Our lives would not be complete without stories- they aid us in discernment, they give us direction, they entertain, they instruct, they open up new worlds to us. And so, Pina’s words ring ever so true in this context- “Tell stories, tell stories, otherwise we are lost.”