The Magazine

Tanz Macabre

Pina Bausch, the German dancer-choreographer 'who launched a thousand imitators.'

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By NATALIE AXTON
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Pina Bausch, the legendary tanztheater director, died last month in Wuppertal, Germany. She was 68 and had appeared onstage with her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, just the week before. A diminutive, soft-spoken master of her craft, Bausch was, to many American dancers and choreographers, the most important artist of the 20th century. She had come to symbolize everything European and avant garde: the expressionist to Balanchine's classicist, the kultur to Michael Jackson's pop. In this hemisphere her only equal was Merce Cunningham.

Bausch was born in Solingen. Her parents, who operated a café she would later immortalize with her signature role in Café Müller (1978), sent her for training to the Folkwang Academy in Essen. This was the academy run by Kurt Jooss, the German expressionist and choreographer of the antiwar ballet The Green Table, and Jooss would become her mentor. In 1960 she came to New York on a one-year scholarship to Juilliard. The New York dance scene of the early '60s was particularly rich, but Germany was where Bausch always wanted to be. She returned to Jooss's company in 1962, assuming artistic directorship in 1969.

Despite her impeccable credentials, Bausch's arrival in Wuppertal was not appreciated. In 1972 the Wuppertal Opera Ballet was yet another standard-issue German municipal ballet troupe. But Bausch had different ideas, and it became Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch soon after she was hired to direct it. The closest thing to ballet her new company ever performed was Agnes de Mille's Rodeo (1973). With Bausch's own work it was all alienation, battles of the sexes, and improvisation-
Brecht meets voyeurism in bare feet. Arlene Croce once described Bausch as a "victim artist," complicit with her audience. That was in 1994, after she had become an international star. The burghers of Wuppertal were initially less amused, and for years they let her know it.

Starting in the 1980s she brought her company to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. American audiences have always been divided by the surreal stage images her works comprise: There is the doomed field of carnations in Nelken, the hippo in Arien, the enormous wall in Palermo Palermo. Dance audiences here are unused to such spectacle: For some it makes up for the absence of "real" dancing in the work; for others it is pure gimmick. Bausch once said, "I keep making, time and again, desperate efforts to dance." Her dancers walk about, encountering one another and their environments through repetitious gestures and bits of dialogue. This disconnection between men and women and their objects is the heart of her work, making her seem more painter than choreographer.

For me, no other modern dance performance can compare to the experience of Tanztheater Wuppertal in The Rite of Spring (1975). It is her masterpiece. An exquisite primitivist interpretation of Stravinsky's score, it contains the most "dancing" in her oeuvre and proves she is a choreographer of the highest caliber-and a consummate showman as well. It's performed as the second part of Tanztheater's Café Müller/das Frühlingsopfer concert, the company's bread and butter. Intermission tends to run long while stagehands rake out thousands of pounds of peat to convert the stage into an enormous pitch. Few moments in the theater include that sense of anticipation: No one's ever late for Rite. The house begins to reek of earth, and the smell becomes a logical setting for the brutal dance drama that follows. At Rite's conclusion the performers are filthy with it.

Pina Bausch's death is an immense loss to the German cultural landscape, which had come to embrace her aesthetic. She had launched a thousand imitators. It was a particular shock that she died relatively young, and so quickly, just five days after a cancer diagnosis. But as any photograph reveals, Bausch was not a woman who took care of herself: She worked incessantly and subsisted on cigarettes. Her family had to remind her to eat.

It's especially tragic that Bausch died just as she was becoming enshrined in the cultural stratosphere: Pedro Almodóvar and Wim Wenders were recording her work. It's always nice to have good recordings of dance works, and Bausch's vision lent itself particularly well to cinema. But where these collaborations might have led we will never know. Pina Bausch called her work tanztheater for a reason: It was in the theater that she thrived; in the world she will be missed.

Natalie Axton writes about dance in New York.