Considered to be one of contemporary dance’s most influential dancers and choreographers, Pina Bausch was best known for her seminal theatrical productions including Sacre du Printemps, Café Müller and Vollmond.
Born in 1940 in Solingen, Germany, Bausch began dancing with the city’s children’s ballet before training under legendary tanztheater founder Kurt Jooss at the renowned Folkwangschule in Essen. After graduating in 1960, Bausch moved to New York where she attended the Julliard School of Music, studying with Antony Tudor and José Limón. Bausch went on to dance at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company under the direction of Tudor, then artistic director, and Paul Taylor at the New American Ballet.
After returning to Germany in 1962, Bausch danced under Jooss again at the Folkwang Ballett. After his retirement in 1968, she became director and began choreographing, producing her first work, Fragment (1968), to music by Béla Bartók, She led the company for five years. In 1973, Bausch was named director of dance for the Arno Wüstenhöfer, which she renamed the ensemble Tanztheater Wuppertal shortly after her appointment.
For more than forty years, Bausch redefined the movement vocabulary of modern dance. Firmly rooted in pre-war Ausdruckstanz (expressive dance), Bausch combined drama with dream-like movement into memorable dance theater. Her work dealt with love, intimacy and relationships, particularly between men and women engaging in “endless, often violent, power struggles.” In addition to the choreography, however, the stage, set design, music and costumes were equally integral to communicating her vision.
In her re-staging of Das Frühlingsopfer (Rite of Spring) in 1975, Bausch reintroduced Stravinsky’s original theme of a fertility dance in which the maiden dances herself to death. Bausch covered the stage in dark, red earth, the dancers rushing forward in rhythmic, undulating groups divided by sex, rolling around and covering themselves in the soil and dancing to exhaustion before eventually meeting in one collective frenzy.
“Bausch’s Rite of Spring is the only true masterpiece to Stravinsky’s ubiquitous music, apart from Disney’s Fantasia, of course!” director and choreographer Matthew Bourne says of the work. “Dancing on the earth itself seems so right, and the movement is raw, effortful and full of dread, performed with passion and heartbreaking intensity. Its simplicity means it will never be bettered.”
Café Müller (1978), one of Bausch’s most important works, was based on her experience growing up in her parent’s restaurant and guesthouse. The principal female dancers move about the stage with extended arms and eyes shut, while the males are left to move chairs and tables, haphazardly pushing them out of the women’s path.
In a 1984 review of Café Müller for The New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff wrote: “What you see is what you get, a highly charged theatrical experience performed by mature-looking performers who appear spent by life before they even begin living. The excitement emanates from the highly controlled energy, the brilliant use of space, the cinematic overlap and flow of imagery.
There is something allegorical about Miss Bausch’s own role in Café Müller, which juxtaposes tense dramatic action with five arias from Purcell’s Fairie Queen. In an evidently public room (designed by Rolf Borzik), a deserted cafe with scattered tables and chairs, Miss Bausch wanders in a nightgown, with eyes closed. Yet everything about this groping sleepwalker suggests that she is absorbing into her pores every single detail of the emotionally stunted behavior around her—just as she has absorbed the life around her to create her work.”
As a company, Tanztheater Wuppertal has performed to critical review around the world, including the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, Theater Carré in Amsterdam and the Sadler Well’s in London. In 1984, Bausch’s company had its U.S. debut at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, and also performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the University of California, Berkeley’s Cal Performances.
Silvia Farias, who joined Bausch’s company in 2000 after a spontaneous audition in Paris, spoke about her ability to engage her dancers as well as her audiences. “She has an incredible effect on people that mere words can’t describe,” Farias said.
“Her work is so moving and she has so much to say about everything and yet is open to new ideas. What is so very special is that besides the dancers, she involves the spectators. She makes them feel that she’s spoken to them personally and that they have had a private conversation with her.”
Bausch received numerous honors and awards, including the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award in both 2006 and 2009, the Kyoto Prize in 2007, and the Goethepreis der Stadt Frankfurt in 2008. She was elected as an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.
Bausch’s Café Müller, in which she danced the principal role, was featured in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film, Hable con ella (Talk to Her). She also appeared in the 1983 Federico Fellini film, E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On).
A life-long smoker, Bausch died in 2009, five days after being diagnosed with cancer. In the year prior her to her death, the filmmaker Wim Wenders began filming a 3D documentary about Bausch and her work. The Oscar-nominated film, Pina, was received will by critics and moviegoers alike.
In conjunction with the London 2012 Olympics, Tanztheater Wupperthal performed World Cities 2012, a five-week run of ten of Bausch’s works serving as the centerpiece of the London 2012 Festival. The works included Viktor, Nur Du (Only You), …como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si (Like the Moss on a Stone), Ten Chi, Der Fensterputzer (The Window Washer), Bamboo Rules, Nefés, Agua, Palermo, Palermo and Wiesenland. Each show drew record crowds and received standing ovations.
Michael Morris, co-founder of the London-based arts organization, Artangel, has said that Bausch’s “contribution to the arts is equal to that of Samuel Beckett or Francis Bacon.” And while her significance in the dance world is unquestionable, Pina Bausch has directly influenced disciplines outside of dance, including filmmakers, actors, artists and fashion designers such as Almodóvar, Fiona Shaw, Antony Gormley and Agnès B.
In his eulogy to Bausch at her memorial ceremony at the Wuppertal Opera House, Wenders said:
We all knew Pina,
each of us in a different way.
We knew her as a mother, as a friend, as a confidant,
as dancer, as choreographer,
as vigilant skeptic, indefatigable worker,
professional yet caring boss,
attentive observer and listener,
as a humble international star…
We all knew Pina,
and every one of us misses her
in his or her our own way:
very personally, very inwardly, very painfully.
But there’s one thing about Pina
that all our memories have in common
—even if we’re not (yet) aware of it—
her look on us.
If you’ve ever stood or sat across from Pina
and looked into her eyes,
or if you’ve ever watched her while she worked
and saw the way she studied her dancers during rehearsal,
you know what I mean by this look,
by “Pina’s gaze.”
Just recalling that gaze
makes her appear right before your eyes again:
the way she often seemed tired and exhausted at first
and then revealed a body and soul full of sheer endless energy,
her head cocked at a slight angle,
her hair combed taut and pulled back,
her fragile form and pale face with its large curious eyes
that seemed to look at the world a bit dreamily,
often giving the impression that her thoughts were elsewhere…
But they never were.
Pina was always present, as you’d notice with a start
when she’d suddenly gaze deep into your eyes,
as if looking through you,
at the same time to your bottom,
and all with this immense sadness on her face,
that was ready to break into a smile at any moment.