The Greatest Modern Dancer and Choreographer



by Graham Watts

The German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch died on the morning of 30 June, just a few weeks short of her 69th birthday. It was reported in the German press that she was diagnosed with cancer only five days previously, although her first battle with the disease was over a decade ago.

Bausch was born in the steel town of Solingen in the first year of world war II and grew up in her parents’ café/bar; childhood experiences that helped to spawn her auto-biographical work‘Café Müller’ (1978). Bausch created a role for herself that opens and closes the piece: an ethereal, night-gowned somnambulist who lightly touches the whole work (often unobserved in the corner of the café). It seems to say so much about her childhood. It was a role she was supposed to dance for the first time in London, at Sadler’s Wells, last spring, but illness prevented her from performing.

Her parents noted the young Pina’s love of movement and arranged for her to attend ballet school. By 1955, aged 15, she was attending the Folkwang School in Essen under the direction of Kurt Jooss. After graduation, Pina won a scholarship under the German Academical Exchange Service (DAAD) to continue her dance studies in the USA and she became a student at the Juilliard School. Her teachers included José Limon, Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske. During this time, her studies were supplemented by work as a dancer with, amongst others, Paul Taylor and at the Met, under the direction of Tudor.

In 1962, Bausch returned to Germany and joined the Folkwang-Ballett (or Folkwang Tanzstudio), which had just been founded by Jooss. She performed with the Folkwang company for eleven years, appearing at many festivals around the world (including Spoleto, Salzburg and Jacob’s Pillow). When Jooss retired in 1968, Bausch became artistic director and choreographer of Folkwang Tanzstudio. Her first recorded choreography had come earlier in that year when she made ‘Fragment’ to music by Bartók.

In 1973, Arno Wüstenhöfer, general director of Wuppertaler Bühnen invited her to become director and choreographer of the Wuppertaler Tanztheater, later renamed the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, thus initiating 36 years of intense creativity in the industrial heartland of western Germnany.

The first works for her new company were dominated by Mahler – ‘Fritz’(1974) and ‘Adagio – Fünf Lieder von Gustav Mahler’ (1974); and by dance-operas – ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’ (1974) and ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (1975). But the two most significant early happenings were the beginning of her professional and personal partnership with designer, Rolf Borzik, who was himself to die tragically early in 1980, and her stunning interpretation of ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’, made in 1975 as part of a triple bill of Bausch choreographies entitled ‘Frühlingsopfer’.

In 1997, Bausch restaged this work for the Ballet de L’Opéra National de Paris. Writing in the ‘Financial Times’, Clement Crisp described it as ‘….a choreographic masterpiece – no other word will do’. When the work was restaged at Sadler’s Wells in 2008, David Dougill of ‘The Sunday Times’wrote: “So many (too many) choreographers have felt the need to pit their skills, or lack of them, against Rite that it has become a rite of passage for dance-makers. Bausch staked her claim to be one of the best”. And for Debra Craine of ‘The Times’ – “there are no provisos where The Rite of Spring is concerned. Bausch’s 1975 creation is truly a modern masterpiece, so hard-wired into Stravinsky’s score…as to take the breath away.”

By the late-70s, Bausch was already seen as one of the most influential dance creators in Europe and a pioneering exponent of Central European dance-theate (tanztheater). Describing her work, Bausch once said, “I’m not interested in how people move but what moves them” and her pieces often contained dark expressionism, dealing with themes of anguish, fear and loss with no discernible narrative thread. Judith Mackrell of ‘The Guardian’described her work as combining ‘…movement of shocking visceral intensity with stage visions of often hallucinogenic strangeness’.

The designs also became more and more elaborate, from the café furniture of‘Café Müller’ (1978), through the water-filled stage of ‘Arien’ (1979), the meadow of carnations for the floor of ‘Nelken’ (1982), the performance of‘Viktor’ (1986) from within a grave and the huge block wall that explodes to leave post-demolition rubble all over the stage at the beginning of of ‘Palermo Palermo’ (1989).

The gargantuan scope for the expression of Bausch’s imaginative force seemed to know no boundaries and audiences either loved her work, or hated it. Reviewing ‘Nelken’ and ‘Palermo Palermo’ in 2005, I wrote: ‘There is nothing OK about the work of Pina Bausch: it inspires either unquestioning devotion or intense dislike. By the end of both these performances there were several vacated seats but, with non-believers gone, all those that remained gave unrestrained vent to their enthusiasm. There is no middle way with Bausch: her work is the visual version of Marmite’.

I have no hesitation in saying that I was one of those who gave myself unreservedly to her astounding, expressionist dance theatre. I was astonished (and awakened) by her ‘Rite of Spring’ and have watched ‘Kontakthof’ (1978) – a work which is danced exclusively by ‘Ladies and Gentlemen over the age of 65’ – so many times that the DVD is worn. It is a gloriously optimistic work, a celebration of life and maturing physicality that lifts the spirit.

Superficially, ‘Nelken’ also appears to be a fun-filled, carnation-infested paradise but it becomes clear that it is a society whose inhabitants are menaced by their anxieties and the threat of repression that hangs just beneath the surface. This dichotomy is vocalised when, in the midst of one game, a player tells us repeatedly that “carnations remind me of my funeral”, whilst another declares simply that “life is not just”. I found myself, more than once, thinking that this was a summary of Pina’s life in those early years of her company where she found love with Borzik, only to lose him so early in their relationship, and then, two years later, she gave birth to a son, also called Rolf, from her relationship with Ronald Kay. Happiness and sadness, light and dark, seemed often entwined in both her life and her wor


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