Articles from Ballet2000

Pina Forever

by Leonetta Bentivoglio - What ideally remains of Pina Bausch (80 years on from her birth and 10 from her death)? Her legacy is a strong one and “her” own Tanztheater Wuppertal, as well as various international companies, are still performing several of her works in restagings by the original dancers. It is already clear that the German choreographer played a sensational role and belongs to the exclusive “family” of truly outstanding creators who reinvented the theatre during the last few decades of the 20th century

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Pina Bausch’s death which occurred at the end of June 2009 in Wuppertal, Germany where she had been working since the 1970s.

Many of the works of the German choreographer (born in Solingen in 1940) are still thriving as the Tanztheater Wuppertal, presently directed by Bettina Wagner-Bergelt, uninterruptedly performs them all over the world. The current Tanztheater mixes in its “old” performers with its new ones, i.e. the numerous young dancers who have been taken on during the past decade and have obviously never worked directly with the company’s founder. Yet the energy and value inherent in Bausch’s vast repertory is such that it continues to be rock-solid and powerful, able to be handed down from one generation to the next.


The company’s policy is to open up – albeit  cautiously – to new creations by other choreographers, so as not to reduce Tanztheater Wuppertal to being a mere “museum” company. This was the case when the company welcomed talented Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaionannou who created Since She for them in 2018. Meanwhile, the Bausch Foundation, led by Pina’s son Salomon Bausch, has embarked on a fairly generous policy vis-à-vis granting rights to perform Bausch’s works to various big international companies; these are thus able to reproduce segments of the choreographer’s historical heritage with the Tanztheater Wuppertal ‘elders’ as consultants; an example is Bausch’s version of The Rite of Spring which has, for a while now, been doing the rounds of various companies – from the Paris Opéra to English National Ballet.

It’s hard to say what ideally remains today of Bausch’s cultural legacy as this is enormous. It’s hard to describe the importance of her memory and what her oeuvre has signified. In order to do so, we need to recall the commotion this author had on dance and theatre in the period that goes from the late 20th to the early 21st centuries. Lovers of live forms of contemporary art know beyond doubt that Pina is a foremost member of that exclusive family of exceptional creators who were capable of reinventing theatre during the last slice of last century. A family that includes artists like director Robert Wilson, who is still hyper-active today, or an unforgettable genius like Merce Cunningham, who also passed away in 2009 and whose abstractionism was the exact opposite of the concreteness of Bausch’s dance theatre (whose roots are to be sought in Expressionism). But certain revolutions are carried out regardless of differences in idioms: they feature a myriad factions and quality doesn’t depend on which side of the fence the artist has chosen. It’s no coincidence that although Bausch and Cunningham were poles apart, they mutually respected and admired one another.

The “interdisciplinary” Pina who, with unprecedented impetuosity, thrust dance onto theatre territory proper, distinguished herself with a style that deeply influenced the development not only of choreography but, indeed, of all the arts. This is one of the most salient aspects of Bausch’s legacy. Not only did she influence choreographic codes (for instance by “legitimising” the introduction of gestual expressiveness), but her energetic work influenced the theatre from many other angles, such as a decentralized and asymmetrical use of scenic space and the expressive body’s centrality adopted in a theatrical context.

Opera directing has in recent years has also been influenced by Pina’s “total art” and by the scenery and settings from some of her shows; so have performance art and the visual arts in general, both of which have taken onboard her message and processed it. Bausch’s imagination and curiosity were combined with a purely artistic sense, playful and almost childlike– that of playing with the reality that surrounds us; they were a beacon for a much wider radius than that of the dance community per se, and brought the Tanztheater Wuppertal numerous new audiences. Moreover, the way her work was honoured even on the silver screen (thanks to directors such as Fellini, Almodóvar and Wenders) is an indication of how far-reaching her influence has been. 

According to philosopher Gilles Deleuze the body can never be viewed solely in the present because it also entails a before and after, weariness and expectation. In Pina Bausch’s dance theatre such time differences are perceptible: in each of her pieces the dancers’ bodies have to deal with recognisable feelings, sentiments and fragility, thus sidestepping the law of objective beauty. Each life flows within that network – comparable to a gestural ceremony – of common movements that are inherent to our everyday existence. Pina transposed those routine rites into the distilled idiom of her highly musical and whimsical choreography. That is why her shows, rather than presenting us with harmonious dancing bodies that correspond to ideal canons of beauty, are made up of “real” and deeply human people who are ready to burst into tears or laughter, to love or attack one other, to find themselves and lose themselves again, or to defend themselves from goodness-knows-what cataclysms (the Tanztheater Wuppertal spectator often gets the impression that the interpreters are moving on the edge of an abyss); or to engage in astonishingly funny, heart-breaking or familiar dances, layers of our unconscious minds.

In over forty years of total devotion to art (her vocation was all-consuming and absolute), Pina not only created memorable shows but also achieved the ideal of representing the body’s truth on stage, performances in which the sense of human existence could be recognised and told unendingly. Thus, her works address loneliness, old-age, innocence, perversion, childhood, man’s exploitation of women or of his fellow man. They denounce environmental catastrophes, address the difficulties of co-existence and seek ways to break down barriers between human beings. All of which within highly physical sets that feature grass, water, leaves, earth, sand, clay, chipped bricks, withered trees and forests of cacti. The goings-on in these settings reflect fears, hopes, nostalgia, frustrated longings and the desire to conquer or dominate one’s fellow human beings. Pina directs the spectator towards subjective sentiments which, filtered by her meticulous poetics, become objective – compact choreographic constructions known as Stücke (“Pieces”). These pieces are never chaotic or messy, but always accurately structured; they are neither happenings nor improvisations, both terms being totally misleading if applied to Pina Bausch’s “choreographic dramaturgy” .

Bausch was a pupil of expressionist choreographer Kurt Jooss at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, and started working in Wuppertal in 1973, after a period of apprenticeship in New York where she studied and worked with choreographers such as José Limón, Paul Taylor and Antony Tudor. Jooss, who taught Pina “honesty and precision” (these are her own words), called her back to Germany and invited her to the Folkwang Tanzstudio where she presented her first choreographies. Then she took over as director of the Wuppertal Ballet which, until her arrival, was being used principally for the dance sections in operas staged at the city’s opera house. Pina Bausch started by staging two danced operas (“Tanzoper”) by Gluck, Iphigenia in Tauris in 1974, and Orpheus and Eurydice in 1975; the same year, she also staged her ultra-famous rendition of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring where a new form of expressive dance emerged with its high-voltage climaxes and emotional tension. After this came the Brecht-Weill programme (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1976), Blaubart (based on Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, 1977) and her visionary rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which was premiered in Bochum in 1978 and entitled Er nimmt sie an Hand und führt sie in das Schloss, die anderen folgen (“He Takes Her By The Hand And Leads Her Into The Castle, The Others Follow.” as per one of the tragedy’s stage directions). Until the end of the 1970s, Bausch took her cue from pre-existing texts or musical compositions. Later, a strong urge for pure research took over: she was driven by a determination “to speak about ourselves” without the mediation offered by a music score or a play. That led to the proliferation of Bausch “tableaux”, one after the other, at a pace of almost one creation a year, including milestone works such as 1980BandoneónWalzerNelkenTwo cigarettes in the darkViktorPalermo PalermoDer FensterputzerMasurca FogoguaTen ChiVollmond and many more. Her repertory is a rich one and her final work …como el musguito en la piedra, ay sí, sí, sí… was premiered on 12 June 2009, i.e. just a few days before her death: Pina was active and creative until the end of her great journey.

Leonetta Bentivoglio - BALLET2000 n° 284, February 2020