Pina Bausch came into my personal dance-awareness with the release of Wim Wender’s 3D film, “Pina,” in 2011. It was somewhat of a sensation at my school and I, who had never heard of Tanztheater, was suddenly enamored of Pina’s work. Here’s the trailer that started it all:
Dance in Germany in the twentieth century is a bit of a roller coaster. Rudolf Laban, Kurt Jooss, and Mary Wigman are the foremost German dancemakers we discuss pre-World War II. All of them fled Germany (Laban for England) while Jooss returned in 1949 to head the department of the Folkwang School, which he established in 1927. Here, Pina Bausch was a student, giving her a unique link to the fading expressionism of Austrucktanz (which had become less popular as post-war audiences were more interested in “apolitical and timeless conventions” than “the confrontational Ausdrucktanz tradition”). Tanztheater is considered to be connected with Ausdrucktanz in that both German dance movements are “built on a cultural lineage in which expressionism was an ineradicable presence” (Reynolds).
Pina went on to spend four years as an exchange student at Juilliard, where she was exposed to the early stages of American postmodernism, including the “happenings” and collaborations of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. This influence is discernable in her process, in which she was known for developing movement from body language and personal revelation, eliciting responses from her dancers in rehearsal- both verbal and movement- which she elicted and arranged as a “free association” imagery to “simulate randomness of everyday life.” This created atmosphere and resonance while rarely (if ever) resorting to a use of plot. (Her version of Rite of Spring, 1975, was her last piece to be constructed within a narrative). A good example of her process of using contributions from her dancers is shown in Chantel Akerman’s film, One Day Pina Asked, in which one of her dancers describes his experience of learning Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” in sign language while in America. He presented this to Pina, who in turn included this male dancer performing the sign language and mouthing the words onstage as the Gershwin song played. The effect is puzzlingly poignant, yet amusing. Audience members can be heard laughing, yet we do not know why there are laughing; often, people laugh when they do not know what response is appropriate.
In 1972, she created the Tanztheater Wuppertal with dancers from the Folkwang School. She became known for her focus on “the debilitating effects of sexual stereotyping and the misunderstanding of outright malevolence expressed in male-female relationships” (Reynolds). This largely related to the dillemma of the newly prosperous and complaent middle class in West Germany.
A piece we see this male-female confrontation (and almost violence) is in her “Kontakthof” which roughly translated to “dance hall,” in which it was “Bausch’s intention to draw a parallel between the world of the dancer– training rehearsal, performance– and the conventions of the Kontakthof, where prostitutes ply their trade: a double metaphor fo rthe marketing of the self required by modern society.” Here is a famous sequence from this piece, in which the men poke and prod at the woman; this is from Wim Wender’s film. This same sequence is presented quite differently in Chantal Akerman’s film, with a much tighter close up on the woman, so the viewer is attacked and crowded as the woman; we are almost seeing it from her perspective, and the effect is quite disturbing. Wender’s version shows the whole scene, giving the viewer the ability to see what is going on, and not so much enforcing upon the viewer to feel what is going on.
She created in collaboration with the designer Rolf Borzik, who she was also personally involved with until he died at age 35 in 1980. His sets- which Reynolds aptly calls “stage environments”- account for a great deal of the memorable images of Pina’s works. The extremely popular water from her 1979 Arien is an example of this, in which the stage is flooded with water that gradually soaks the dancer’s tailored suits and 1930′s style evening gowns.
Pina’s work is theatrical in the context of using all possible acoutrements of theatre technologies, as an additive process, and in that it represents human experience and emotions. Her dancers are classically trained (a man casually executes an impressive series of repeated entrechat-six at one point in Carnations) yet, the technique is not the focus. Wim Wender’s film concluded with a quote, which regardless of preference for school or dance idiom, we can all appreciate:
“Dance, dance; otherwise, we are lost.”
Pina passed away in 2009.