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The Brooklyn Rail Remembers PINA BAUSCH

On July 1, 2009, the Guardian printed
the following poem by Wim Wenders:

Pina Bausch is dead.

The sudden and abrupt end of her life and her creativity

shocked her family, her friends, dancers, collaborators
and admirers of her art all over the world.

We are in mourning.

Pina will continue to influence all of us
who were in touch with her
and who experienced the magic of her work
as well as the righteousness and tenderness of her look
at us and at our times.

I’m brokenhearted
that we started our long-envisioned collaboration and film
too late.

The collaboration was to be the first ever 3-dimensional dance film, a project that Wenders cancelled due to her death. Encouraged by mourning fans, he has decided to resume the task as an homage to the choreographer.

Pina Bausch. Photo courtesy of BAM.
Pina Bausch. Photo courtesy of BAM.

I had learned of Pina’s death the day before, when I checked the WNYC Performance Club blog. Known fondly to many by her first name, Pina Bausch was the visionary artist whose heavy tanztheater brew inspired both awe and revulsion across the world. She died suddenly, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer. My own contact with her work was sparse, but I know that she was a master of spectacle, ritual, and emotion, and that her work pushed uncomfortable limits surrounding love and violence, women and men. Yet there was so much more to know and experience about her world. Claudia La Rocco’s brief post reflected the sense of loss to which many young Americans like myself would relate:

“I can’t think how many hours I spent hunched over the video monitors at the library for the performing arts, watching grainy footage of her early, iconic pieces. And then being blown away when I finally saw one of her epic dance-theater works live.

Hard to imagine dance today without her influence. Hard to believe she’s gone.”

Indeed. I may never stop kicking myself for not catching those last shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like many others, I know Pina Bausch through video. I’ve only seen her dirt-saturated Rite of Spring (1975) on tape, supplemented by several documentaries about her work and Pedro Almodóvar’s film Habla Con Ella (Talk to Her), which opens with an excerpt from her Café Muller (1978) and closes with a scene from Masurca Fogo (1998).

Revisiting these, I was struck by the documentary Damen und Herren ab 65 (Ladies and Gentlemen Over 65). The film follows Pina restaging Kontakthof (1978) for non-professional seniors, residents of the small town of Wuppertal, Germany, where she made her creative home. For me, it is a brilliant artistic choice. It is shocking (at least in America) to see such darkly sexual and unapologetically physical material presented by older performers. One woman recalls that the open audition occurred on her 71st birthday. Being chosen by Pina “was the best birthday present I’ve ever had,” she tells the camera in German, “in all these 71 years.” The story is uplifting. Participants meet the challenges of professional performance with difficulty, but come away with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and the sense of wonder that comes from working with a master artist.

Pina was well known for being a demanding director. Although physically precise, her reputation was not one for pushing bodies too far but for pressing emotional limits to extremes. She often built on her dancers’ personal experiences, crafting masterpieces from the raw material of traumatizing memories. Breakdowns and worse occurred within her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. Hans Beenhakker, a leading dancer there in the 1990s, corresponded with me via email about working with Pina:

“It was for me, as a dancer, liberating and gratifying to be allowed to express my language ‘dance’ as theatre. There was no compromise in the creating process. I stood for a woman who had seen, absorbed, and then created so much already that you just can’t bullshit and have to dig deep to show her something worthwhile—cruel and often painful. But at the end very satisfying as a performer. It had to be real (not fake), otherwise it wouldn’t make it to the stage, and Pina’s eyes saw everything.

Truly she was the only choreographer I have worked for or watched where the border between audience and stage was removed by sheer emotion, felt in everybody’s stomach present in the theatre. It was magic to know the whole theatre was one. I love to make just jumps and turns but it is the emotional cause or reason underneath which makes it magic. Pina let me only move if it meant something, I am grateful for this.”

Pina certainly had the background and the dancers to rely on jumps and turns alone. Her training was steeped in tradition, studying under German Expressionist Kurt Jooss before coming to Juilliard under the tutelage of Antony Tudor and Paul Taylor. Instead, she broadened the possibilities of dance, bleeding her work with the other arts. Catherine Peila, co-founder of the International Contemporary Dance Conference in Bytom, Poland and Executive Director of Dance New Amsterdam here in New York, spoke to me about her impact. For Peila, one of Pina’s greatest achievements was that of cross-pollination between different art forms and also between different eras. She sees Pina as a link between the traditional and the postmodern. She “took Expressionism and created something brilliant with the essence of it,” carrying that inheritance forward. Further, in incorporating theater, poetry, and other elements into her tanztheater works, she bridged the gaps between disciplines, creating a kind of total experience. Beenhakker agrees: “All the different art forms were touched because she made them one, showed all creations are connected if they are coming from within.”

That revelation made a huge impression on New York audiences and artists. Choreographer Bill T. Jones shares his first experiences of Pina with the Brooklyn Rail:

“It was somewhere in the mid-1970s in the converted girls’ club that we, members of a scruffy dance collective, The American Dance Asylum, were attempting to convert into a dance-center, that we received the visit of a former classmate of our collective’s founder, Lois Welk. He had just returned from dancing in Europe and gave us a breathless reporting of the work of a ‘crazy German woman’ whose dancers performed on dirt, in straw and water.

It wasn’t until 1984 that I first saw the work of Pina Bausch at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There was the famous, muddy, Rite of Spring and the heartbreaking apparition of Café Muller set amidst its desert of chairs and tables on one evening. On the second evening, the work entitled 1980. Alternately savaged (‘self-indulgent,’ ‘female self-loathing’) or praised by the NY press, she simply took my breath away. First, there was the recognition that someone who claimed to be in the dance-world’s avant-garde had rejected the stripped down, funky aesthetic that we—young choreographers—felt was our heritage from the Judson Church era. Secondly, here was an original and outlandish vision of Modern dance as fully produced, robustly theatrical, glamorous (those evening gowns and what looked like a set from an elegant dinner-party as Fellini might have conceived it) and yet squarely positioned in the continuum of the time-honored tradition of German Expressionism as Ms. Bausch was considered the keeper of Kurt Jooss’s ‘flame.’

But was it dance?

This question resounded throughout the community as it seemed more spectacle with nary a pointed foot or movement phrase to be seen. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. That one visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music changed everything.”

In the years that followed, BAM formed a special relationship with the Tanztheater Wuppertal, presenting 19 works to date. In a public statement, Executive Producer Joseph V. Melillo recalled, “Pina Bausch was an enormously influential artist as well as our good friend…[She] entranced New York audiences with…boundary-defying works filled with grace, power, and the humor of everyday life. We mourn her passing and we will never forget what she shared with us.”

Looking back on her contributions, I am reminded that Pina herself was very private. My friend, dancer, and choreographer Jo Morris acknowledged, “I’m equally fascinated by Pina, the woman, [and] Pina, the choreographer, but I suppose they are the same.  In most of what I’ve read, she’s never revealed much about her personal life, but that is of no matter when confronted by her work.” Limited access to Pina as a person only enhanced the mystical appeal of her art, which communicated so much for her.

 Last fall, Pina directed the NRW (North Rhine-Westphalia) International Dance Festival in Düsseldorf, providing an opportunity for artists and audiences to get a closer glimpse of her. New York-based dancemaker Susan Marshall, whose work has drawn comparisons to Pina’s, and who acknowledges that Pina’s tanztheater has been “hugely important” to her, participated in the event. Her recollection feels like a fitting tribute to the late icon:

“I saw Pina Bausch perform in Café Muller, dancing the part she has danced since I first saw the work at BAM over 20 years ago. Watching Pina perform was like watching a young, slender girl one moment, and the mature, aging, world famous dancer and choreographer the next—she was breathtakingly beautiful. And Café Mueller is as stunning now as it was decades ago. At this recent viewing, I was prepared to find the work less inspirational for me personally than it once had been; but no, I was rapt and newly inspired by its brilliant structure—so innovative in its time and still offering so many lessons.  Pina was an incredibly gracious host to all of the artists who took part in her festival. Seeing her last fall it seemed as if she would continue to grace and rein the dance world for decades more—and she will.”


Mary Love Hodges


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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