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Life and Works

Essen to New York, and Back:
Training & Early Career Born in Solingen, Germany in 1940, Pina Bausch began her dance studies at the age of 15 at the Folkwang School in Essen, where she studied with several teachers, including the renowned expressionist choreographer Kurt Jooss. In 1959 she graduated and was awarded the Folkwang prize for special achievement. With a stipend from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Bausch went to New York in 1960 to study at The Juilliard School with Anthony Tudor, José Limon, Louis Horst, Alfredo Corvino, Margaret Craske, and La Meri, among others. At the same time she performed with the Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer Dance Company and the New American Ballet. Bausch later became a member of the Metropolitan Opera's ballet company and also worked with Paul Taylor. She has remarked that her two years in New York were among the most influential in her early life and that when she thinks of New York, she feels a sense of homesickness.

In 1962, Bausch returned to Germany where she became a soloist in the newly-formed Folkwang Ballett, working once again with Kurt Jooss, and also with Hans Zülig, and especially with Jean Cébron. Her choreographic career began in 1968 with Fragmente, followed by Im Wind der Zeit (In the Wind of Time), which later won first prize at the Second International Choreographic Competition in Cologne. Bausch has said that her impetus for taking up choreography was out of the frustration of wanting something to dance. From 1969-73 she served as artistic director of the company, while continuing to dance and choreograph. Bausch's work was gaining notice and after creating the bachannale for Hans-Peter Lehmann's production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser for the Wuppertal Opera Company in 1972, she was offered the directorship of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet. Reluctant at first, Bausch agreed when she was permitted to bring dancers from the Folkwang-Tanzstudio with her. Not long after her arrival, the company became the Wuppertaler Tanztheater, and was later renamed the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

In her new position, Bausch helped revive modern dance in postwar Germany which has its roots in Ausdrucktanz, or "expressive dance," which looked to everyday movements to express personal experiences, and which gained popularity in the 1920s. But with the rise of the Nazis and the war, modern dance lost its vigor, many of its creators like Kurt Jooss left, and German dance became isolated. After the war, there was little enthusiasm for Ausdrucktanz, while classical ballet flourished. With Jooss's return in 1949, the re-established Folkwang School provided one of the only places for formal training in dance other than ballet. But it was not until the late 1960s and 1970s that German modern dance began to regain momentum, in part due to the student movement in West Germany. Young dancers felt constrained by the formalism of German ballet and American post-modern dance, and rebelled against the Americanization of their country. Some returned to the expressionism of Ausdrucktanz and started to venture into new ground, combining it with elements from the other arts. Toward the late 1970s, the term Tanztheater or dance theater, began to be used to distinguish the work of these choreographers, one of them being Pina Bausch.

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"Come, dance with me." - title of a 1977 Bausch work
The Pieces

When she assumed the directorship of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet in 1973, Bausch set out to broaden its classical orientation. Even prior to Wuppertal, she had begun to go beyond the vocabulary of modern dance in pieces such as Aktionen für Tänzer (Actions for Dancers) from 1972. Bausch's versions of Gluck's operas, Iphigenie auf Tauris (1974), and Orpheus und Eurydike (1975) are completely choreographed "dance-operas" that do not illustrate their stories, but comment on their emotional implications. In Iphigenie, the singers are placed in the pit while the dancers are on stage. Frühlingsopfer (often known as Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring) from 1975, was a breakthrough piece for Bausch that garnered widespread critical attention. It uses music by Igor Stravinsky, including "Sacre du Printemps." She returns to Stravinsky's original concept of a fertility celebration in which a sacrificial maiden dances herself to death. The tale is told from the perspective of the young women waiting to see who will be The Chosen One. The dancers perform on a peat-covered stage and dance to near exhaustion. Audiences considered it shocking, even scandalous, but critics hailed it as being among the best versions of the work. It has gained wide acceptance and was recently performed by the Paris Opera Ballet under Bausch's supervision.

The two Gluck operas and Frühlingsopfer are often cited as the culmination of what Bausch was able to achieve within the bounds of dance tradition, and 1976-78 as the period when her style makes a marked change. German dance critic Jochen Schmidt sees Ich Bring Dich um die Ecke (I'll Do You In) in which the dancers sing the music, and Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) and Fürchtet Euch nicht! (Don't Be Afraid!), set to works by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, as the beginning of her new style. The Weill-Brecht pieces balance ballet, theater, and show business while engaging social criticism and realism, and are in the form of a revue that is not continuously choreographed, appearing fragmentary. A crisis arose at this point when some in the company felt there was not enough dance being incorporated, so Bausch began working with a smaller group who accepted the style she was developing.

Since her first days in Wuppertal, Bausch has created more than thirty full-length works. Three of her most celebrated works are from 1978 and 1979. Café Müller which is supposedly based on her recollections of her parents' inn,Kontakthof (Difficult Place) which looks at self-display and begins with each member showing him or herself from different angles, as well as revealing their teeth, and Arien (Arias) in which the dancers move in a pool of water that slows their movement, drenches their clothing, and reveals their bodies and vulnerability. Bausch once indicated that the early 1980s was a time when she focused on the world and our fear of violence and disaster. In Nelken (Carnations) from 1982, the performers play increasingly vicious childhood games while watched by armed guards and dogs. Since the mid 1980s, Bausch has created a number of place-inspired works for which her company spent time at each site gathering information. The most recent are Nur Du (Only You) inspired by the western U.S. and based primarily on a stay in Los Angeles, Der Fensterputzer (The Window Washer) inspired by Hong Kong, and Masurca Fogo, by Lisbon. Others include Viktor (Rome); Palermo, Palermo; Tanzabend II (Dance Evening 2) (Madrid); and Ein Trauerspiel (A Tragedy) (Vienna).

Bausch has also ventured into acting, in Federico Fellini's E la nave va (1982), and filmmaking in 1987-90, directing Die Klage der Kaiserin (The Plaint of the Emperess). Her latest stage work, O Dido, had its first performance in April of this year.

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"My pieces grow from the inside out."

Style & Method

Some hallmarks of Bausch's mature style have been the absence of a sustainable plot, or conventional senses of progression, or revelation of characters. Her pieces are built on brief episodes of dialogue and action that are often centered on a surreal situation, prop, or costume. In Viktor, a female dancer pounds a steak and then stuffs it along with her foot into a toe shoe, and performs bourrées. In Bandoneon a man evolves from being in a business suit into a dreamer in a ballerina's tutu. Actions are often multilayered and performed simultaneously. The company frequently addresses the audience and tries to involve them, as in Kontakthof (Difficult Place), where a woman asks an audience member for a quarter to ride the hobby horse on the stage. Repetition is an important structuring device that is used as a means of alienation, to stop the action, so that one can consider what is presented again and again, from different perspectives.

Bausch has been criticized for overusing it to the point of ennui. But she says, "You can see it like this or like that. It just depends on the way you watch."

It is not dance in the conventional sense nor is it orthodox theater since dialogue does not sustain the drama. Bausch has said that she's never considered what she does as choreography, but as expressing feelings by whatever means will best convey them. The most well known statement by Bausch comes from an interview with Jochen Schmidt in which she says, "I'm not interested in how people move, but what moves them." As in Ausdrucktanz, or "expressive dance," which looked to everyday movements to express personal experiences and which gained popularity in the 1920s, Bausch aims to use emotive gesture, but in a new way. For her the individual's experience is the critical component and is expressed in bodily terms, thus creating a new type of body language. By doing this, the role of the body is redefined from one in which it disappears into the function of creation and is objectified, as is typical in ballet and most dance, to one in which it becomes the subject of the performance. Each dancer's body tells its own story based on what it has experienced.

One method Bausch uses while creating a piece is to ask her dancers questions about their personal experiences, such as in Nelken (Carnations), in which each member of the troupe tells personal accounts about their first love. When asked questions, some respond spontaneously, others contemplate and rehearse. The resulting stories, images, and gestures are sometimes used in the piece. "My pieces grow from the inside out," she is known to say. When asked what she looks for in a dancer, Bausch says that above all, "the person is important." Some have commented that her dancers "don't look like dancers," referring to the fact that they are of all shapes, sizes, and ages, but in fact, most are trained dancers, which Bausch prefers, and all take dance classes daily. This company has no "stars" or designated soloists.

For Bausch, the choreography, stage, sets, space, time, music, speech, costumes and personalities are all integral components and help to communicate something that movements or words alone cannot. Reviews often go into great detail about the sets, which have become legendary. Rolf Borzik, stage and costume designer from 1974 until his death in 1980, first set the tone and look of the pieces and was succeeded by Peter Pabst as stage designer. The stage has at times been filled with dirt or sod (Sacre du Printemps and Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört), dry leaves (Blaubart), live grass (1980) and water (Arien). It has also had thousands of pink plastic carnations (Nelken), a mountain covered with 40,000 red silk flowers (Fensterputzer), gigantic redwood logs (Nur Du), and a 5-ton wall that comes crashing down (Palermo, Palermo). Arien includes a hippopotamus; Nur Du (Only You), a gigantic, blue whale; Nelken, two police dogs; Viktor, sheep; and Bandoneon, mice.

Bausch has frequently remarked that most of her pieces deal with searching for love and intimacy, and relationships—particularly between men and women, with all their tensions and difficulties. There are many other recurrent themes but none has drawn more attention, at least in the United States, than the frequent depiction of violence, especially against women. Bausch makes clear that she is no champion of violence but that it must be portrayed for the audience to feel the suffering and anger it engenders. She has often been called a feminist but refuses to be labeled as such, and denies that there is any social or political agenda to her works.

Other recurring themes are angst, loneliness, alienation, the inability to make human connections, rejection, and the struggle for self-identity. But alongside these more somber themes are moments of humor, tenderness, and hope, which are often overlooked. In the early 1980s, works like Nelken and Walzer (Waltzes) took on a lighter quality and exhibited more humor and gaiety. And although this "sunny period" which seemed to coincide with the birth of Bausch's son was abandoned by the late eighties, some later works, such as Nur Du and Der Fensterputzer (The Window Washer), return to lighter moods. 

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   Wicked Fairy

or National Treasure?     

Criticism

It is almost impossible not to have a strong response to Pina Bausch's works. From the beginning and even today, reception has been divided and controversial. While some see Bausch as the most influential creative force in postwar world theater, inspiring two generations of choreographers, dance theater makers and opera directors, with the likes of Robert Lepage, Peter Stein, William Forsythe and Robert Wilson, there are those who regard Bausch as the queen of "angst theater," and her works as "depressing, self indulgent ramblings of interest only to anthropologically minded theatre scholars."

Acceptance did not come quickly or easily. She was called "The Wicked Fairy of German Ballet" when she got rid of new productions of Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker in her early years at Wuppertal, and survived harassment and subscription cancellations. Dance critic Norbert Servos contends that in the beginning, people lacked the means to evaluate what they were seeing because they could no longer rely on the coherence of the work's content, which lacks a continuous plot or character. Moreover, the complexity of what was presented prevents the viewer from deriving a single meaning from the presentation. Servos suggests that the pieces are not complete until the viewer's own experience is compared with, and connected to, the events on stage. As one reviewer commented, it means "no more and no less than what you think it means."

Opening the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic's Art Festival was the Tanztheater Wuppertal's American debut. Their performances there, and later at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, provoked heated reactions. American critics in particular have not received Bausch with open arms, partly because her style is so antithetical to the trends in American dance. Critics questioned whether what they saw could be called dance at all. Some pointed to its lack of form. One even questioned the morality of Bauch's art. The troupe has made at least six visits to the BAM and performed in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Austin and Tempe.

American critics have been troubled by the frequent display of violence, especially against women. The title of Fürchtet Euch nicht! (Don't Be Afraid!), for instance, is taken from the words sung by a smooth-talking man who rapes every woman within his reach. German critics and dancers point out that violence is a reality of present-day living and is regularly depicted in the movies, TV and elsewhere, so why not in dance? Some American critics are more bothered by the women going along with their aggressors repeatedly, without exploring why, or how they can fight back. Some think that all this focus only sensationalizes it. But there are also those who feel that it makes one confront the issue, and still others who say it may be our own fears that prevent us from wanting to face it. Bausch makes clear that she is no champion of violence but that it must be portrayed for the audience to feel the suffering and anger it engenders. She has often been called a feminist but refuses to be labeled as such, and denies that there is any social or political agenda to her works.

When the company was first gaining recognition, it was the dance community that took notice, but interest has extended well beyond. Bausch's works are now the topic of dissertations and scholarly articles that explore them for their dramatic, psychological, and aesthetic content, using psychoanalysis, feminist and gender analysis, as well as other methods. While the jury will likely continue to be divided, Pina Bausch is now considered a national treasure and is one of Germany's most highly sought-after cultural ambassadors. She has put German dance "back on the map," making dance theater an influential force in dance, and beyond.


By Mimi Tashiro ©1999, Stanford University


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