Pina Bausch: “Dance, Dance or We Are Lost”


Bausch, photo by Wilfred Krueger.

The quote above, "Dance, dance or we are lost," was her mantra. It is also the subtitle of a new film in 3-D by Wim Wenders that opens in February after its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Pina Bausch, to whom Wenders dedicates the film, is the founder and driving force of a dance company with the rather unwieldy name—Tanztheater Wuppertal. At the time of her death on June 30, 2009 at age 68 she was widely regarded as the foremost choreographer of our time. Here is a trailer for the film.

pina: tanzt, tanzt songst sind wir verloren link

If some of the dance moves seem familiar it may be because you recognize them from another film: Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her. That film features several scenes of Bausch and her company, taken mostly from her large-scale work, Café Müller. Here is the trailer for Talk to Her with several glimpses of the company.

Pina (Philippina) Bausch was born in 1940 in the “City of Blades,” Solingen, located in west-central Germany. It is likely you have kitchen knives made there, as the city has been associated for centuries with highest quality steel. Bausch’s “incisive” dance techniques are wrought of the same aesthetic. Her lean, edgy body is honed to a razor fine edge.

Bausch in “Cafe Müller,” photo by Anne-Christine Poujoulat.

She seemed indestructible, a dynamo who created hundreds of dance works. On the last day of June 2009, however, her indefatigable body failed her and she succumbed to cancer--- five days after diagnosis.


Stravinsky’s music for the ballet, The Rite of Spring, has been choreographed over 180 times since the notorious 1913 Nijinsky premiere. None of these iterations has had the raw, primal power of Bausch’s, which is so earthy that her version is performed on a stage covered with peat moss. Here is the final section, the dance of “The Chosen One,” the virgin as a sacrifice to the pagan god of Spring (sorry, the video is stretched). At 2:45 Malou Airaudo begins her frenzied dance to the death:

No. It’s not Swan Lake. But is it even ballet? Bausch called her company “Dance Theater,” a term that goes back to Weimar Republic cabaret of the 1920s. What Bausch has done is to mine the domain of theater with its urgent existential themes of life, love and death; from this matter she has crafted powerful dramas of character that are as much about exploring psychic conflict as they are about dance. Many pieces incorporate speech (a “verboten” in traditional dance). Her movement vocabulary is as challenging as the most demanding traditional ballet but its metaphors are jagged, disjunctive, reflecting the confusion and malaise of life today.

The irony is that Bausch developed this unruly vision out of classical training. By age 14. she had danced in the Solingen Children’s Ballet and had began to study under Kurt Jooss at the Folkwang School in Essen. Jooss taught a less rigid dance style that still incorporated the basic rules of ballet. While there, Bausch was also exposed to many other arts that formed the school’s eclectic arts curriculum: the Folkwang was not solely a dance school. Armed with a government grant, she left for the United States and became a special student at the Julliard School. New York City was then the world’s dance mecca. George Balanchine’s glacial formalism reigned supreme at City Ballet. Her already incipient free-form inclinations were further developed there under Jose Limon, Paul Taylor and Anthony Tudor; it was the latter who created a dance for her that included 587 arabesques, 224 jetés and 184 turns: so much for her ballet bona fides. She also had a stint as dancer in the MetOpera Ballet. Taylor once described her as “one of the thinnest human beings I’ve ever seen. [She could] streak across the floor sharply, though a bit unevenly, like calipers across paper… She’s also able to move slower than a clogged-up bicycle pump.”

For many, this duality of classical style and breakaway free form could have augured schizophrenia in technique, but for Bausch it was fodder for a rapidly developing aesthetic of her own. Returning to Germany on Jooss’s invitation to dance for his Tanzstudio, she performed many of his works, assisting him in developing new pieces. In 1973, the director of Wuppertal Theaters, Arno Wüstenhöfer, chose her to head the Wuppertal Ballet, a traditional company, in the city not far from her birth town of Solingen. She had come full circle in her travels—but the singular trip she was now to take became a global sprint into new artistic terrain. Within a year, she had renamed the company Tanztheater Wuppertal. There was no turning back. Two of the last pieces she did in anything resembling traditional ballet  form were in fact “dance operas,” based on works by the classical era composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. The first of the pair was Iphigenia in Tauris.

The unleashed energy (Dance of the Furies) is pure Bausch, even in embryonic form; the choreography still pays homage to ballet’s sweeping and graceful gestures but tugs hard at the seams:

The next year, 1975, she created Orpheus and Eurydice. The “dance of the blessed spirits” models itself, in a non-ironic nod, to the lyrical tropes of classical ballet.

But the sweeping port de bras bears little resemblance to Petipa or Fokine. This beautiful dance was both her homage and farewell to classical dance.

Her Rite of Spring was a leap into her future. Within the next three years, her work had evolved so far away from “ballet” that many in the company abandoned her. But she forged on with a singular vision and began to create a new style incorporating simpler movement patterns and an exploration of emotional states. Actors and non-dancers were invited to help create these new works: a technique akin to the way director Mike Leigh develops his movies. The biography on her website, written by Nobert Servos, says:

Yet in making this unusual move, Pina Bausch had finally found the form her work would take, its dream-like, poetic imagery and bodily language justifying the worldwide success she soon achieved. In taking people's essential emotions as its starting point - their fears and needs, wishes and desires—the Tanztheater Wuppertal was not only able to be understood throughout the world, it sparked an international choreographic revolution.

Pina Bausch's dance theatre risks taking an unflinching look at reality, yet at the same time invites us to dream. It takes the spectators' everyday lives seriously, yet at the same time buoys up their hopes that everything can change for the better. For their part, they are required to take responsibility themselves. All the men and women in Pina Bausch's pieces can do is test out, with the utmost precision and honesty, what brings each and every one closer to happiness, and what pushes them further from it; they cannot offer a panacea. They always, however, leave their public in the certainty that—despite all its ups and downs—they will survive life.

In Bausch’s own words, she says she strives to create “a space where we can encounter each other.” That space is the theater stage. This is not to say that her acclaim was universal and instantaneous. The dance critic for the English Daily Telegraph described one piece as "more walk-theatre than dance-theatre, with some choice specimen walks on offer—the supermodel slink, the slapper's strut, the shuffle of the most slovenly waitress in the world". The esteemed critic for The New Yorker, Arlene Croce, wrote (according to NY Times obit writer Daniel J. Wakin) that her work was

glum, despondent, dabbling in theatrical Dada,” pointlessly repetitive, marked by “thin but flashy shtick” suggestive of the “pornography of pain.”

There is no doubt that Bausch’s work comes from a deeply visceral place. In explaining her approach to an interviewer from Le Figaro, she explained that she requires more than technique from her dancers:

I look for something else… the possibility of making them feel what each gesture means internally. Everything must come from the heart, must be lived.

Filmmaker Lee Yanor made a 3-minute video portrait of Bausch in Paris’ Café Le Mistral in 2002. The opening hand play is reminiscent of Stieglitz’s iconic photos of the hands of Georgia O’Keeffe. The dancer in red is Christiani Morganti, in an excerpt (I think) from Danzon.

A slideshow of Bausch dance pieces are at the NY Times website.

New York Times slideshow—“Remembering Pina Bausch” link

In 1983, Bausch appeared as the Principessa Lherimia in a Fellini film. She explains to the assembled dinner guests her concept of sound/color synethesia, a topic I discussed in a piece I wrote last year about the Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim.

John’s Bailiwick: “Subway to Synesthesia” link

Here is the clip from Fellini's E La Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On). The first 10 seconds only are pixellated.

In 1990, Bausch made a feature length film titled Die Klage der Kaiserin (The Complaint of the Empress). It was her only directorial venture in feature film. Here is an excerpt.

If you are bold enough to tackle a fuller exploration of her theater/dance concepts, the full film is here in eight parts:

A beautifully lyrical excerpt from a larger piece titled Walzer illustrates how Bausch strove to integrate dancers from her company with ordinary people she recruited in her travels for city specific commissions. This haunting dance is the antithesis of much of the deliberately confrontational work she was known for.

One of Bausch’s most acclaimed and demanding works is Café Müller. As a child in the working class town of Solingen, she worked in the restaurant attached to the small hotel that her parents ran. The ebb and flow of patrons, with its constantly unfolding drama of intimate stories observed, served to inspire her later work. Café Müller is its embodiment.

All five parts are available on YouTube if you want to follow its narrative through line. But it is at the beginning of this third part that we can see Bausch at her most sublime, an ethereal white-robed presence in a congeries of chairs kicked and strewn about by darkly dressed male dancers. The accompanying aria “When I Am Laid in Earth” is from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.

Bausch and her company performed a number of times in Los Angeles. They opened the 1984 Olympic Arts festival in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium performing the Rite of Spring. A number of front row spectators present that night were covered in peat moss and dust by the time the “Chosen One” expired. Robert Fitzpatrick, artistic director of the festival, recalls in the LA Times obituary piece on Bausch that he offered to pay the patrons' dry cleaning bills.

In 1996, Bausch presented her “Americana” piece at the LA Music Center: a 3-½ hour dance poem to the Southwest and the California redwood forests. It was called Nur Du (Only You). The title came from the 1956 hit of The Platters that was featured at a high point in the dance drama. This was the only time I saw Tanztheater Wuppertal. Carol and I had front row seats, the only ones available on short notice. I worried we would be too close. From the perspective of overall aesthetic evaluation, it may have been so. But I have never before felt so inside a dance experience. Part of it may have been sheer proximity to the action—but I believe that the powerful humanity and life force of Bausch’s work shoots like an arrow through any sized auditorium and pierces your heart to the quick.

I can’t imagine she would find any more appropriate tribute to her life and work than the white-suited R&B group, The Platters, with Tony Williams, singing as partners to her dance.



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