Scene4 Magazine-inSight

September 2009

Scene4 Magazine - "Pina Bausch-A Memory" Renate Stendhal

by Renate Stendhal

Pina Bausch's sudden death (not so sudden, in truth: she had been sick for a long time without letting on) tore a gaping hole into the European theater landscape. As Andrea Kapsaki reminded us in her passionate homage last month, Bausch's creations were understood, from the start, as a revolutionary renewal not just of dance, but of theater. Single-handedly, Bausch had invented "dance theater" in the sooty little town of Wuppertal, Germany. In the course of her 35 years at the head of her Wuppertaler Tanztheater, with at least one new creation every year, Bausch's works turned from the extreme avant-garde into a sort of classicism of her own making. Her ideas were copied by everyone. Wherever you look at  modern opera, theater or dance productions in Europe, you will see her mark, her inspiration. The entire theater world mourned the loss of the "Empress of German-expressionist dance" (Le Figaro) and the "Picasso of dance" (La Repubblica) who represented "the last link in the great tradition of German expressionism of the thirties" (the Moscow daily Kommersant).


Choreographer John Neumeier remembered how Bausch had "literally shaken the entire dance world". Film director Wim Wenders, who had planned a film on Bausch this fall, talked about Bausch's art as a "reflection of our time like no other." Pedro Almodòvar considered her as a personal friend and inspiration; his Academy Award-winning film "Talk to Her" begins with a scene from "Café Müller": Pina Bausch herself dances, a man in the first row of the audience is in tears.

It is hard to imagine what will happen next. Rumor has it that the company will continue for another two years, probably fulfilling already existing touring contracts. And then? A whole group of amazing actor-dancers is suddenly orphaned. Some of them have been with Bausch almost from the beginning. As she used to build every piece of work on the dancers' most intimate ideas and improvisations, one can justly say that Pina was their entire life. Not only is dance an obsession, Pina was everyone's obsession in this company. I counted one of her dancers among my friends and know first-hand the fierce passions both the tenderness and mercilessness of the graceful, chain-smoking "Empress" created in her troupe.

But apart from and beyond the dancers: What will happen to Pina Bausch's legacy -- her most influential creations: "Sacre du Printemps", "Café Müller", "Kontakthof", "Nelken", "Bluebeard's Castle", etc.? I only know of one case in which Bausch rehearsed one of her works with another company ("Sacre du Printemps", with the Paris Opera Ballet). Will other companies acquire the right to perform her work? If not, will we ever see a Bausch choreography onstage again?



The year is 1996. Pina Bausch's flight from Los Angeles is an hour late. A small group of Cal Performances organizers, admirers, and writers is waiting for her at the Oakland airport. Everyone has left the plane. There is no Pina Bausch.  Someone goes to make a call. Then the choreographer/dancer appears, walking slowly, oblivious, in conversation with Peter Papst, her set designer. She discovers us: "So many people!" She is clearly pleased.

Bausch, her set and costume designers, and a contingent of twenty-six dancers from her Wuppertaler Tanztheater company are in residence at the University of California at Los Angeles for a month to prepare for a special event. Bausch, Germany's premier creator of avant-garde dance theater—Newsweek has called her the "uncrowned empress of modern dance"—is going to create, for the first time ever, a piece outside of Europe. The topic of the site-inspired work is America—more precisely, the cross-cultural experience of life in the American West.

The concept was born some eight years ago in the mind of Robert Cole, director of Cal Performances. The extraordinary idea needed extraordinary funding to cover the cost. Cole got it and the world premiere will be performed in Berkeley.

During the month of on-site preparation, four western locations are the focus of exploration: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas and Tempe, Arizona. On this wet February night, eight months before the premiere, Bausch has left her dancers in L.A. She wants to get a sense of San Francisco and its nightlife, in particular the dance clubs in the Mission.
The fifty-five-year-old Bausch travels dressed in a black pant suit and long coat.  Everything about her is elegantly understated and flowing. Her dark hair falls over her back in a low ponytail held by an ordinary clasp. She almost always dresses in black, almost always wears pants. By contrast, her white face, without makeup, is luminous, a long, bony oval with the high, domed forehead, hooded eyes, and long slender nose of Gothic statuary.

I grew up in Germany and had wanted to meet Bausch from the moment I first saw her dance as a soloist in the ensemble of Kurt Jooss, the famous Folkwang Ballet, with its expressionist dance-theater tradition. Back then, in the sixties, Bausch stood out through both the unusual fluidity and grace of her long limbs and the inward intensity of her dancing that appeared to be a form of prayer. Few people were aware that this exceptional woman had begun creating her own dance pieces and would soon found her own company, in the Westphalian town of Wuppertal (the birthplace of Friedrich Engels). In Bausch's twenty-three years as a choreographer, she has performed in only two of her pieces: her 1978 autobiographical "Café Muller" (Bausch grew up in the pub her parents owned in Solingen), and "Danzon" (1995). In both, her movements resemble a floating under-water reed.


Driving across the Bay Bridge from Berkeley to San Francisco, our small welcome committee reminisces about Bausch's beginnings. In 1975, Bausch burst onto the world stage with her idiosyncratic version of Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" ("Frühlingsopfer"). She used the explosive violence of Stravinsky's music to drive the dancers to emotional and aggressive extremes, representing all the women as sacrificial victims of the men. The piece was performed on a stage covered with dusty, smelly peat—the first of many astonishing scenic environments (her stages have been covered with grass, water, rubble, thousands of carnations) that Bausch and her set designers have devised. Overnight, Wuppertal, the small coal-mining town, became a name on the map of contemporary world culture.

If her "Sacre" was a revelation, wildly applauded as well as booed, Bausch's next pieces were an even stronger provocation, soon leading to sold-out houses wherever the Wuppertaler Tanztheater appeared.  One, "Bluebeard: While Listening to a Recording of Bela Bartok's Opera 'Count Bluebeard's Castle'" (1977), was set in a large chamber covered with a thick layer of dead, rustling leaves. The women in the cast literally walked up the walls in a vain attempt to flee the sadistic pursuit, rape, and torture perpetrated by the men. 

In "Café Mueller," women stagger like sleepwalkers and crazed moths through a space cluttered with chairs while a man races around to clear a path for them, noisily throwing and kicking the furniture out of the way. A hugging couple, their bodies forced by an older man into a "proper" stance of couple behavior, resist again and again with a fury. I have heard people laugh at the grotesque rituals of repetition. I heard others say that the loneliness of the women and men in "Café Muller" brings them to tears.

From the start, Bausch's choreography has forced spectators into paradoxical emotional viewpoints by making them feel the tender and the brutal, the sad and the funny, as a constant fluctuation. When Bausch opened the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles with some of these controversial pieces, then went on to show them in New York, American audiences were appalled by the "tragic joker" (Newsweek) of modern choreography.


The majority of American critics consider Bausch "very German and very tedious," in the words of one. "Bausch may have her hang-ups, but basically she's an entrepreneuse who fills theaters with projections of herself and her self-pity," renowned critic Arlene Croce wrote in The New York Times. As we drive into the city, we ask Bausch what she thinks of such critical comments.

Bausch fishes a pack of cigarettes out of her black leather pouch, then reminds herself not to smoke in the car. She tends to answer questions with her long, fluid hands, hands without any adornment, constantly in motion. "If you take notes during the performance, you don't have time to feel anything," she muses. She doesn't raise her voice to get over the noise of the car. She never raises her voice. "Critics," she continues, "are so busy thinking about what they see, how can they say anything about their feelings? My pieces are about feelings."

Positioned at the opposite extreme to American postmodern dance with its minimalist abstraction and pervasive optimism, the Wuppertaler Tanztheater is pessimistic, cynically funny, and violent—a perpetual slap in the face. It was originally based on Brechtian techniques of alienation, everyday movements, and repetitive minimalism. None of the usual, well-known building blocks of dance performances remained. The narrative was replaced by dissected scenes, revue and film-like fragments based exclusively on the dancers' improvisations. The sound track consisted of music collages and the speaking, singing, screaming voices of the dancers. The major themes: the tragic-comical rituals of courtship between men and women; the dynamics between individuals and groups; the longing for tenderness, love, and connection, doomed by the iron claws of social conditioning.

To American modern dance choreographer Alwin Nikolais' motto, "Motion is not emotion," Bausch responded, "I am less interested in how people move than in what moves them."

We have made a round of the City, taken a brisk walk through the Castro, visited Japanese American sculptor Ruth Asawa's house.  Now we settle in for a late dinner at Stars Café, a place where Pina can smoke.  We continue to explore the question: Can an avant-garde creator be understood in her time?

A member of our group claims it takes twenty-four years before a new work can find acceptance by an audience. Bausch says it has to do with "Sehgewonheiten", a word she asks me to translate: habits of seeing.  I mention surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim's favorite saying, "Every new idea is an aggression." Pina looks puzzled, unsettled. In her low, shy voice, she ponders more to herself than to us, "It's not meant as aggression, I am not aggressive. That says more about the person seeing the work. It's not about the artist."

Someone explains that newness is often perceived as an aggression, a provocation, whether intended or not. Bausch repeats that it's not her intention to provoke. She still subtly bristles at the word—and the conversation awkwardly stops for a moment.

Bausch carries a stillness, a space around her. Space where she is alone, miles away from everyone else. To ask questions intrudes. She is suspicious of words. Once in a German interview she mentioned that she didn't talk a lot as a child, and she has often stressed the fact that she has no words for what she is doing. "Everybody sees a different piece," she says in the restaurant. "Nobody can see the piece I see. I see all the details in the rehearsals, and people see only one performance. I can't explain what I see, but if I could, you would understand me, not the piece."

She can speak without looking much at anybody. Instead, she seems to look for something inside herself. There is a paranoid perfectionist at work in her listening. Bausch checks, tastes, and rejects most words, especially when they are about her art. She doesn't listen in the sense of some inner motion toward a speaker in order to gather or make out meaning.  Mostly, the contrary happens: She withdraws, the space between her and the speaker widens with the words. That distance often feels tense, even painful.

Our conversations remind me of an image from "Café Müller" that is typical of Bausch's work. A female dancer attempts to leap with full force and abandon into a man's arms while he makes no effort to catch her; she falls off him with a thump, picks herself up, hardly takes a breath, and springs at him again. And again. And again. With the repetition the violence augments and the dancers speed up; the ever-increasing tempo introduces a comical element reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin films. There is no getting used to such an interaction.

"Please understand," Bausch says to me at the end of her stay, shy and apologetic, "that I do all this so I don't have to speak…"

Like Bausch's dancers who never stop, never give up in their eagerness to communicate, we can't stop questioning her, even if it rubs her the wrong way. We know she has done other site-inspired pieces before (in Vienna, Palermo, Rome, Madrid), and we want to know about the piece she is working on. She tells us little bits about her American experience. She was greatly impressed by a karate master in LA and a Native American Studies class at UCLA, by a Mexican breakfast with cowboys on a Texas ranch. What seems to have impressed her most, however, was driving through Los Angeles.

"There can't be any spontaneity in your life," she repeatedly declares, "if there are hours and hours of driving everywhere and you have to plan ahead how long everything will take. People can't see or meet people because they are all in their cars all the time!" This explains why she instantly loved the Castro. "There are people in the street," she pointed out with a surprised voice. "Not like in LA!"

Later, before Bausch's nightclub tour, she tells us something else that has made an impact on her. "All the disasters here, people lose their house and everything, I see it on TV, and they say, 'Okay, we'll build another house.' Just like that. In Europe, they would be crushed." (She hangs her head down in apparent despair.) "Here, you don't see that. You see no reaction. People are so positive."

"Laid back," I confirm, and everyone tries to explain to her what that means. Bausch gets it, leans back in her chair, folding her arms as a barrier over her chest. I add, "It means something else, too, perhaps.  People here in the West are young in their spirit, there is something childlike and open to the bigness of nature and life. It's as though they are saying, 'Okay, give it to me, I'll take it all, even if I break.'" Everyone agrees—except Bausch, who listens and remains silent.


A few months later, when I travel to Wuppertal to get a first glimpse of the new commission while it is still being worked on, I recognize in Bausch's vision the world we live in here, in California.  The "piece in progress" already has a title, "Nur Du (Only You)"—an unusual move for Bausch, who generally has a hard time making any title decisions before an opening. (One of her works ended up being called "1980—A Piece by Pina Bausch.")

A major surprise is the stage set. Peter Pabst and Bausch have decided to set the action at the foot of mammoth tree trunks, right in the middle of a redwood grove, so to speak. The ominous, towering trunks are a strangely effective metaphor: Nature, in the American West, literally dwarfs human life and, in Bausch's version, occasionally reduces people to the status of ants crawling on the wood floor of the stage. The colorful, chaotic antics of Bausch's troupe around the giant totems seem like children's games: narcissistic, brutal, immature, yet undeniably playful and charming. 

This is another surprise: I don't think there is a lighter-hearted, funnier piece among the thirty-some creations by Bausch than this one. "Nur Du (Only You)" is a tender, wistful look at a world that is new not only to Bausch and most of her dancers but new by comparison with tired old Europe, where part of its cultural roots are buried.


Bausch spent two years of her youth in New York, studying and performing modern dance. Some of her old affinity for the New World seems present in "Nur Du (Only You)" in its show-business style, one colorful "number" following another. The score is a potpourri of jazz, Argentinean tangos, Indian flute music, Brazilian waltzes, popular hits of the last decades (such as the Platters' "Only You"), and Broadway melodies. Each "number" tells a social story, and each story can be seen as a deeply philosophical, absurd, sad, silly reflection of the western American way of life. In Bausch's inimitable style, there is no judgment, no imposition of a particular meaning. (A German critic once commented, "No answer, but so many beautiful questions.")

Puritanical obsessions play a main role in the new piece: sex and cleanliness in comic counterpoints, including California's obsession with water and its uses: athletic (everyone-on-the-stage carries a bottle of Evian), hygienic (people showering even in the woods), fetishistic (a woman wears two drinking cups as a bra while her partner wears a pet mouse in a chest-cage).


The one element missing from the work (which was enthusiastically received by the Wuppertal audiences) is the cross-cultural component of the American West. The vast majority of Bausch's international dancers are white-skinned. On the night I saw the piece, Bausch was experimenting with a few blackface scenes, but one try-out performance later she had renounced the tricky and potentially racist masquerade.

When Bausch premieres "Nur Du  (Only You}" in October, it will be interesting to see whether this theme will show up in more than the world-music mix of the score—and whether California audiences will recognize their cultures.  One thing seems certain: There will be as many different interpretations of Bausch's new puzzle piece as spectators seeing it.  What it all means in the end is up to you, only you…


Apart from many clips on YouTube, Bausch has a small, but fascinating role as a blind Duchess of the Habsburg Empire in "And the Ship Sails On", by one of her great admirers, Federico Fellini. Pedro Almodòvar's "Talk to Her" shows two scenes from her works. One of the most riveting portraits of the company is "One Day Pina Asked" by the experimental Belgian cineaste Chantal Akerman.  


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2009 Renate Stendhal
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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September 2009

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