A Stage for Social Ego to Battle Anguished Id

July 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

Franz-Peter Tschauner/European Pressphoto Agency
Pina Bausch in 2004.
The New York Times: June 30, 2009

Because dance does not use words, and much of its spell lies in aspects of contrast, rhythm and coordination, it is only occasionally taken seriously as drama. With the greatest choreographers of recent decades, it has been, and yet even Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham — to name but three — have not won the acceptance as theater artists that they deserve. As dramatists, they at least equal the playwrights who have been their contemporaries. But this is still too seldom said.

The productions of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, however, always and immediately made a striking impact as theater, and the audiences they attracted included many who were by no means dance specialists. Choreography as a term does not suffice to define her work, which frequently used the spoken word and relied on elaborate scenic effects. Anyone who saw her pieces will recall how the women of her “Rite of Spring” covered themselves in earth; how in “1980” the stage was a lawn; how “Carnations” (“Nelken”) began as a field of, yes, carnations (gradually trampled as the work proceeded); and how “Palermo Palermo” began with the coup de théâtre of a tall wall, across the stage, toppling forward and falling apart.

Even if you objected to much of Ms. Bausch’s work — I did — it was a shock to hear of her death on Tuesday at 68. To recollect those and other images is to remember the strange courage of her vision. Who else put such worlds onstage? How much of her choreography, if any, can survive her? Plenty of it has been filmed. (Parts of “Café Müller” and “Masurca Fogo” looked very appealing in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 movie “Hable con Ella.”) But mainly, as they say, you had to be there. A wall falling over on film is one thing. But when a wall falls over onto the stage not far from you, the impact is of another order.

What is scarcely diminished by Ms. Bausch’s death is the art of dance. There were good dance moments in her work, but they were usually of secondary interest and choreographically of no lasting import. Her big-scale dance episodes were mainly wild and vehement forms of not quite coherent expressionism. The women’s anger and suffering in “Rite of Spring” and “Iphigénie en Tauride” were both memorable and vague. The pieces’ lack of dance precision was part of their point, as was the way they seemed to flaunt a kind of unfocused and unrigorous intensity that in almost any academic-dance classroom would be considered bad style.

But there were several kinds of dance in Ms. Bausch’s theater pieces. Several of her epics included arch little routines (sometimes with the cast coming into the auditorium, and usually performed with women wearing red lipstick) involving a small social-dance-like step pattern, smart upper-body gestures and — here the Bausch style was always at its most precise — sophisticated facial expressions. The dichotomy between this social ego and the incoherent flailings of the anguished id was central to much of her work.

Another strange component of Ms. Bausch’s dance style was bad ballet. The way her performers would make a point of forcing themselves to do adagios, turns and jumps — drawing to your attention all the muscular, stylistic and technical imperfections that obviously flawed the dancers as ballet technicians — was part of the extraordinary masochism she often placed onstage.

Masochism was a recurrent feature in Bausch theater: you would see not only dancers tormenting another dancer (holding cigarette lighters to the soles of feet, for example, or pelting a face with tomatoes) but also the degree to which the victim was complicit in his or (usually) her suffering. Unusual among non-ballet artists of recent decades, there was little or no gender neutrality in her work: the differences between men and women were central and a subject for drama.

No single label will do. Ms. Bausch was not just a green artist protesting the desecration of the environment (though that was a powerful element in her works) or a feminist depicting the opposition between women’s pain and their social conformism (though that was evident) or an expressionist emitting rage at aspects of the socio-political status quo (though the intensity of that feeling was unmistakable). In some of her pieces she seemed to be celebrating the charm of the world, not just mourning its erosion. And she was often funny.

Her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, must be remembered for its many extraordinary performers, who would open themselves up onstage to the audience in startling ways: with alarming directness, wicked slyness, exaggerated elegance and manic fervor. “You know them better than you know your best friends,” one critic remarked in the 1980s.

She was a theater poet. Whether the images added up to successful poetry became part of the debate. I have used the word incoherent about her: it applied most obviously to the structure of most of her works. Yet that incoherence wasn’t quite a flaw. To me, most of her pieces expressed the inner landscape of the depressed mind, here obsessed and there rambling, often compelling. But she was at pains to elude definition.

In thinking of the Bausch works that might have been, you imagine aspects of beauty, humor, big-scale visual imagination, as well as darkness, sarcasm and intensity. And the simplest way to feel her loss is to reflect that now there will be no more Bausch pieces for us to argue about. The scene is smaller without her.

Pina Bausch rehearsing “Café Müller” in 1995. Her pieces combined dance, spoken word and scenic effects.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pina Bausch, German Choreographer, Dies at 68

July 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

Pina Bausch, the German choreographer who combined potent drama and dreamlike movement to create a powerful form of dance theater that influenced generations of dancemakers, died on Tuesday in Wuppertal, Germany. She was 68.

Barbara Sax/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pina Bausch in Berlin in 2007. More Photos »


The cause was cancer, her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, announced. She received the diagnosis just five days ago, said Ursula Popp, a company spokeswoman. Ms. Bausch’s family did not release the exact nature of the illness, Ms. Popp said. As recently as June 21, Ms. Bausch stood on stage after a performance of a new work, which is untitled, Ms. Popp said.

Ms. Bausch, whose roots were in prewar German Expressionism, helped change the perception of what could be brought into a dance performance. Her shows featured a deep sense of theatricality; disconnected and sometimes absurd episodes; and elaborate, unusual sets, like carpets of carnations and peat moss or a collapsing wall.

Her base was in Wuppertal, an industrial city near Düsseldorf in northwest Germany, but the company was often at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London, the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris and festivals around the world. This summer, the company is to appear at the Spoleto Festival in Italy.

In the United States, Ms. Bausch has been a regular at the Brooklyn Academy of Music since 1984. The academy’s executive producer, Joseph V. Melillo, said he had attended a performance of Ms. Bausch’s new work in Wuppertal on June 12. She seemed tired, he said, but no more so than usual after creating a new piece.

“She was Pina, loving and enjoying the company of all of us who had come to be at the premiere, celebrating with the dancers who had worked so hard,” he added.

Mr. Melillo described Ms. Bausch as having created a new dance form — tanztheater — by transforming a pure formal dance background through “her own passions and technique and discipline.”

“The whole scale of Pina Bausch’s tanztheater no one had ever seen before,” he added.

Ms. Bausch established a method of creating dances that was widely copied. She would begin rehearsals by asking specific questions of the dancers: about memories, about their daily lives. She would ask them to act out the recollections, and create minidramas from their responses. The dance would grow out of that work, as well as a sense of place derived from foreign residencies.

“I don’t know where the beginning or the end is,” she said in an interview with The New York Times last year. “You have to digest. I don’t know what will come out.”

The ideas and feelings were often harsh, like frustration and alienation, cruelty and pain, but the works were frequently suffused with humor. Ms. Bausch was quoted as saying she was “not interested in how people move but in what moves them.”

Pina Bausch was born on July 27, 1940, in Solingen, also near Düsseldorf. She started dance study at 14, at the Folkwang School in Essen, which was directed by Kurt Jooss, a major figure in German dance before World War II whose antiwar masterpiece “The Green Table” (1932) is still performed. After graduating in 1958, she received a scholarship to continue her studies in the United States, working with José Limon, Antony Tudor and others at the Juilliard School.

She soon joined Tudor’s company at the Metropolitan Opera and also worked with Paul Taylor. In his autobiography, Mr. Taylor described Ms. Bausch back then as a Tudor favorite, homesick for Germany and “one of the thinnest human beings I’ve ever seen.” As a dancer, he said, she could “streak across the floor sharply, though a bit unevenly, like calipers across paper.”

“She’s also able to move slower than a clogged-up bicycle pump,” he added.

In 1962, Ms. Bausch returned to Germany and joined Jooss’s Folkwang Ballet as a soloist. She took up choreography, making her first work, “Fragment,” in 1968. She succeeded Jooss as company director the next year.

In 1973, she took over a company in Wuppertal, which was quickly renamed Tanztheater Wuppertal, and created her first work there, “Fritz,” with music by Wolfgang Hufschmidt. But what really captured the dance world’s attention was a 1975 production of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on a stage covered with soil. She revived “The Rite of Spring” for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1997.

One of her most important early works, “Café Müller,” was based on memories of growing up in the restaurant and hotel run by her parents.

Ms. Bausch is survived by her companion, Ronald Kay, and a son, Salomon Bausch, 27.

Her influence is clear in the work of European choreographers like Jan Fabre, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Sasha Waltz and Alain Platel. Her work has also been a major influence on American contemporary-dance choreographers who question the boundaries between theater and dance.

Yet her work provoked sharp divisions among critics. Her “greatest and most terrifying works are unified by place and ambience,” wrote Deborah Jowitt in The Village Voice. “Bausch builds our expectations with brilliant theatricality.”

Others saw her as a purveyor of over-emotive and manipulative patchworks. Arlene Croce, the dance critic of The New Yorker, was notably scathing, calling her choreography “glum, despondent, dabblings in theatrical Dada,” pointlessly repetitive, marked by “thin but flashy shtick” suggestive of the “pornography of pain.”

In the mid-1970s, Ms. Bausch staged two Gluck operas, “Iphigénie en Tauride” and “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Her work was also featured in several films, including Fellini’s “E la Nave Va” (“And the Ship Sails On”) and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Hable con Ella” (“Talk to Her”).

Ms. Bausch restaged “Orfeo” at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2005. In an interview with Le Figaro at the time, she said the dancers had plenty of technique.

“I look for something else,” she said. “The possibility of making them feel what each gesture means internally. Everything must come from the heart, must be lived.”

Roslyn Sulcas contributed reporting.

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