In spite of the company's yearly season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Tanztheater was largely ignored by the US dance community. Every time I tried to bring her name up in conversation I was met with uncomprehending stares. Here we talk Balanchine, Mark Morris and Martha Graham.
However Pina Bausch has developed a large following in Europe and Asia during her twenty-five years of tenure in Wuppertal. In May 2008 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a month later. Many of her works have been available as cult classics on You Tube and are still performed by her company in extensive international tours.
My first contact with Pina's work was at the beginning of Almodovar's film "Talk to her". Two men sit side by side in a theater watching a performance of "Café Müller", a parable of longing, search and disappointment, that brings both to tears and into closer acquaintance. The film ends with another Pina piece, "Botafogo", a nostalgic and sensual danzón.
Pina Bausch has often seen her performances quoted and included in films. In 2009, at the Cinemathèque Française I watched a two hour draft of a film by Jérome Cassou, a French filmmaker who had worked with her, mingling his steadycam with her dancers during performances at the Théatre du Chatelet. I was dazzled by the unedited sequences that Cassou hoped would open him to authoring a biopic or anthological film on her life. It was not to be; Wim Wenders, her compatriot, has finally produced a magnificent remembrance of what she accomplished, a homage titled "Pina", nominated at the 84th Academy Awards for best live documentary.
Pina is not identifiable with any of the well-known ballet schools in use in the USA. She stems directly from the German Expressionist school, with flavors taken from Martha Graham. Born in 1940, she studied under Joost, a survivor of the Weimar era, and landed at age 19 in New York, where she studied at the Juilliard School, and danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the Paul Taylor Company. Those two years, she has said, made her free.
She then returned to Germany, to study under Günther Folkwang. She started to choreograph for him and later, after his death, formed the Folkwang Ballet. In 1973 she went on to form her own company, the Tanztheater, in Wuppertal, a heavily industrial city in the metallurgical Ruhr basin, explicitly moving away from the denomination "ballet". "Tanztheater" literally means "theater of dance", giving her the freedom to express her distance from traditional ballet.
In the twenty-five years of her tenure she has produced some thirty works, and gathered around her a devoted body of dancers from around the world. Many of them have been with her for most of their careers, and she has always found material in people of all ages. Wim Wenders centers his just opened film around some of them, young and old, to illustrate her working style. She looks for the inner resources of her dancers to produce the deeper landscape that the dance aims to express. Wenders includes an old clip of hers, explaining why she will not work with words "...they are only symbols, stand-ins for emotions." Her most frequent admonition to the people around her is to keep on looking for that deep-felt motivation.
The interviewed dancers recognize Pina's talent in unleashing their own potential, to examine and understand themselves, to bring out the most recondite feelings in them, and to shape that material into powerful messages of humanity. An Argentinian dancer recalls the day when Pina asked him to come up with a movement expressing joy. When he did so, she developed around it a whole sequence for the ensemble.
Pina addresses human longings, loneliness, its vices and sequels, and the drives and aspirations of men and women in their isolation.
She is known for bringing onto the stage natural elements, water, peat, rocks, flowers and shape the dance around them. One of her best known works, "Vollmond" (Full moon), is centered around a huge, metallic-grey boulder, sitting in a pool of water, in which the dancers swim, slither, pursue each other, splash and cavort throwing elegant semicircular silver plumes of water.
Her most dramatic work, to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", is danced on a stage covered with dirt. A sacrificial maiden is chosen by the tribe to be offered to the gods. Men do the choosing from a tight cluster of terrified girls, dancing in unison in short and staccato gestures, in their togetherness, visual echoes of Rodin's "Citizens of Calais" and Käthe Kollwitz's workers and peasants, towards submission and death.