Iconic … Pina Bausch in Cafe Müller (1978)
Pina Bausch was the high priestess of dance theatre: a gaunt, chain-smoking figurehead whose penetrating vision reached both the heights and the hell of human nature, and turned the unremarkable town of Wuppertal into a place of artistic pilgrimage.
Rewriting the rules … Bausch’s Bluebeard (1977)
Philippine (“Pina”) Bausch was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1940. Her parents ran a restaurant, and Pina would often amuse customers with impromptu dances. After childhood ballet classes, she went on to the Folkwang school in Essen, headed by Kurt Jooss, who drew on the concept of Ausdruckstanz, the expressionist dance that had flourished in pre-war Germany. From there she won a three-year scholarship to New York’s Juilliard School, where she studied with English ballet choreographer Antony Tudor and performed with both American modern dance groups and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.
She returned to Essen in 1962, becoming a founder member of Jooss’s new Folkwang Ballet, where she began choreographing in 1967. She led the company after Jooss’s departure in 1969, until she accepted the directorship of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet in 1973. She remained there for the rest of her life, despite only ever signing one-year contracts. “I was always ready to go. It was never meant that I stay here in Wuppertal,” she said. “It just happened.”
To the disgust of traditionalists, Bausch completely revamped the Wuppertal into a vehicle for her own searing style of Tanztheater. Rules of style and presentation were bulldozed by her imperatives of emotional and psychological expression. Despite the hostile reactions, however, she began to attract an international cult following and the small town of Wuppertal became a mecca for the world of dance (and beyond: her devotees included several actors, directors, artists and film-makers). From the mid-80s onwards, many of the company’s new works were made through residencies in international cities, including Rome, Lisbon, São Paulo, LA, Istanbul and Tokyo.
Shortly after arriving in Wuppertal, she met Rolf Borzik, who became both her lover and principal stage designer until his untimely death in 1980. A year later, she married the Chilean poet and academic Ronald Kay, with whom she had one son (named Rolf).
A tall, sepulchral figure who subsisted on cigarettes and coffee, Bausch was at her most iconic as the somnabulist in Café Müller (1978), a role she continued to perform into her 60s. On film, she also appeared as a strange, otherwordly presence in Federico Fellini’s The Ship Sails On (1982), and in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2001). She died suddenly in July 2009, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer. Her company, though, remains determined to carry her legacy into the future.
Watching Pina Bausch
Otherwordly presence … Bausch in Fellini’s The Ship Sails On (1982)
You can divide Bausch’s work into three broad phases. Her earliest works were the most conventionally choreographic, with a development and denouement, and movement as the principal medium. The most powerful of these is The Rite of Spring (1975), set to Stravinsky: its emotional force still leaves audiences reeling. From Bluebeard (1977) onwards, Bausch abandoned development and progression: all her subsequent pieces are loose, unpredictable montages of scenes, strung together by free association. As she began to work more with ideas drawn from her performers’ personal lives, soul-baring confession came to dominate the choreography. Meanwhile, movement became just one of an anarchic array of mediums that included song, film, costume, set design and props. Her later location pieces used her performers’ reactions to the cities in which they were resident as source material for surreal, sometimes comic dances about local people and places. The result is like riffling through sets of intriguingly warped postcards.
Throughout her work, some themes recur: human frailty and brutality, the power and the pity of personal relationships (particularly between men and women), the blind force of desire, the desperate veneer of normality (she often dresses her performers in formal gowns and suits, representing a shiny layer of convention). Her earlier pieces, especially, were harrowing in their portrayal of haunted souls and precarious sanity; later in her career, there was more humour, though it was wry rather than sunny. Bausch’s sets are often overwhelming – rocks and rivers (Vollmund), huge ramparts of earth (Viktor), bleak screes of dead leaves (Bluebeard), a field of flowers (Nelken).
Bausch’s works are not meant to be watched: they’re meant to be experienced. (See Pina Bausch: clip-by-clip dance guide for my own, more personal take on the experience). Surrender to her vision – with the pieces regularly lasting for three hours with no interval, you have little choice – and you’ll find that they can flay your soul.
The joy of sets … flowers cover the stage in Nelken
After Borzik, Péter Pabst was Bausch’s regular stage designer. Bausch’s dancers often stayed with the company for many years; notable women included Jo Endicott, Nazareth Panadero and Meryl Tankard; among the men, Dominique Mercy and Jan Minarik. Mercy and Robert Sturm are currently co-directors of the company.
During an early Bausch performance, one outraged audience member invaded the stage, grabbed a bucket of water that Tankard was using as a prop, and tried to chuck it over another dancer who was reciting a poem over and over ad nauseum – but she ducked, and the audience was drenched instead. And no, it wasn’t part of the choreography.
In her own words
“I loved to dance because I was scared to speak. When I was moving, I could feel.” – Interview with Valerie Lawson, ballet.co.uk, 2002
“I am less interested in how people move than in what moves them.” – A famous quote, first given to Jochen Schmidt of the Frankfurter Allgemeine in 1984
“I didn’t want to imitate anybody. Any movement I knew, I didn’t want to use.” – Quoted by Luke Jennings, Observer, 2009
In other words
“You can count on one hand the number of modern-dance-makers who have changed the landscape – and Pina Bausch was one of them.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2002
“Pina’s vision was second to none. I’d put her up there with Beckett and Bacon as one of the towering figures of the 20th century.” – Michael Morris, director of Artangel, Guardian, 2009
“A Bausch evening … takes place in those three to four inches between nature and nurture, good and evil, and just about any other dichotomy one cares to name. It’s a tight crawl space.” – Laura Jacobs, New Criterion, quoted by Janice Ross, 1999
“The traumatised psyche of middle Europe made flesh.”
Luke Jennings wrote that in the Observer last Sunday. It’s rather good. Try saying it.
“The pornography of pain.” New Yorker critic Arlene Croce wrote that in 1984. Don’t say it – she’s been getting it in the neck ever since.
Vision in pink … Bausch’s Masurca Fogo (1998)
Bausch is hugely influential across the world. Reinhild Hoffman andSusanne Linke, also from the Folkwang school, were very much part of the German Tanztheater movement, of which Sasha Waltz is a younger member. In Belgium, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Alain Platel andSidi Larbi Cherkaoui have all been inspired by Bausch; in Britain, the best-known company is DV8 Physical Theatre.
Now watch this
Heights and hells of human nature … Bausch’s Waltzer (1982)
Where to see them next
See the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch website for performance dates.