The death of Pina Bausch on Tuesday, June 6, came as a shock. She had been diagnosed with cancer only five days before. I thought not just of the dance world’s unexpected loss of a brilliant, influential, controversial figure, but of her works and perhaps of her company—a particular, intimate extension of her own body and creative mind.
My first memory of Bausch, oddly, is of her as a young dancer in the early 1960s, when she was studying at Juilliard (having already graduated from the Folkwang School in Essen). One of a small group of women in a piece by Antony Tudor, she was wearing a black tutu of sorts and black tights and looked like a glamorous spider; I had never seen anyone so thin. Tudor admired her and took her into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, which he directed (she danced briefly, too, with Paul Sanasardo and with Paul Taylor). When Tudor staged his great Lilac Garden for the Folkwang company, after Bausch returned to Germany, she played the central figure of Caroline.
Nothing prepared me for the first New York appearance of her Wuppertal Tanztheater, brought by Harvey Lichtenstein to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984 for the first of many visits. One can only imagine the ruckus she may have caused in the small industrial German city in 1973, when, as a prize-winning young choreographer, she took over as director of the local opera house’s dance company and gradually transformed it. The group certainly shook things up in New York. Audiences were mostly thrilled, critics divided. In 1985, BAM and Goethe House sponsored a symposium in which the debate touched on whether what Bausch was making was dance, whether new German dance was “deeper” than current American dance, whether Americans were concerned only with movement and form. Issues such as naturalism, abstraction, symbolism, violence, misogyny, and meaning were batted about among the panelists and between them and members of the audience. The moderator, Times critic Anna Kisselgoff, often engaged German dance critic Jochen Schmidt, one of the panel members, in a dialogue (Schmidt grew increasingly red in the face with anger throughout the session as they debated American dance values versus those of German tanztheater).
Yet appreciation of Wuppertal Tanztheater grew here, as year after year the company showed us works that had premiered in Germany in the 1970s (it took us a while to catch up). Whether you loved Bausch’s work or hated it, you wouldn’t dream of not going to see it. And many young New York choreographers, schooled in Merce Cunningham’s the-movement-is-the-meaning principles, were both impressed and excited. As Jane Comfort remarked in a 1988 interview, “When we saw Pina Bausch, it was a shock; it was almost like she was giving Americans permission to use expressive movement again.”
Bausch redefined expressiveness in ways that meshed with post-’60s ideas about distancing and coolness. She didn’t construct her pieces as extended narratives, but as short—often very short—and enigmatic “acts.” Cruel, heartrending, disturbing, funny. Her collage structures derive less from the art world than from revues and vaudeville turns. The dance numbers, the monologues, the songs, the bizarre games, contests, and ordeals don’t influence one another. When one scene ends, the performers walk away from it and the next one starts. Within a sequence, repetition is often used mercilessly. I think, for example, of a woman repeatedly turning her back to the audience and pulling down her dress so that a man can lay a lipstick stripe across her back; they repeat this action without any sign of hostility until her back is a network of red lines. Or a group of men attempting to caress and soothe a woman, until their accumulated patting and stroking becomes painfully oppressive.
The brief sequences, however, have underlying themes: the often antagonistic relationship between men and women, loneliness, longing, the perils of childhood. In 1980, a woman removes a man’s shoes and socks while he’s seated on a chair; she puts a woman’s stocking on one of his legs and sticks little candles between each toe of his other foot; then she lights them and, in a noncommittal voice, sings “Happy Birthday to you.” That kind of distanced performing is a crucial ingredient of her style, and the occasional, realistic fits of anger or grief become transformed by repetition or excess.
Bausch’s world is essentially a bourgeois society reminiscent of the 1950s. The women wear short dresses or long flowery evening gowns and, often, high heels; the men appear in suits and ties. Many of the music selections are another generation’s favorites. But Bausch frequently alludes to rehearsing and to the act of performing. Dancers break through the fourth wall, addressing spectators flirtatiously or aggressively from the stage or moving among them.
The hours-long pieces that astounded us in the 1980s were, in a sense, postmodern spectacles (the early ones wonderfully abetted by Rolf Borzik’s set designs). Remember the floor flooded with water in Arien (1979); the enormous proscenium-filling wall that crashed down to begin Palermo, Palermo (1989); the moist, smelly turf that covered the stage in 1980; the flower-garden vision of the 1982 Carnations (through which, at one point, men in party dresses frolicked like rabbits).
In the 1990s, Bausch made pieces that can be seen as snapshots in an album or video clips—with images and sounds inspired by cities to which Wuppertal Tanztheater had toured, or by a country that intrigued her. The last one seen here, in December of 2008, was Bamboo Blues (2007), with its allusions to India (draping fabrics, the cooling power of water, Bollywood films) mixing with her familiar visions of ordeal and absurd tasks. In these works, Bausch returned to dancing. One after another, her company members would appear in fluid solos that reminded me that Bausch had studied with José Limón while at Juilliard. It was as if each dancer had been given a theme to develop in individual ways.
Oh those dancers! Bausch’s oeuvre cannot be considered without their input. In the studio in Wuppertal, they responded to her leading questions, dredged up memories of childhood, of passions, of their most embarrassing experiences. She chose, edited, added to, and orchestrated the facts of their lives and their desires and fears. Meryl Tankard, Dominique Mercy, Beatrice Libonati, Jan Minarek, Lutz Forster, Nazareth Panadero, Josephine Ann Endicott, and many many more; they brought her work to unforgettable life. In a work never seen here, Action for Dancers, made before Bausch took over the company in Wuppertal, the action centered on a woman lying shrouded on a white hospital bed, which, wrote Schmidt, “sooner or later the entire ensemble will climb into.” The image haunts me now, of course, in relation to her death, but also because I feel for the brilliant performers who, in another sense, climbed into bed with her and helped her work to become the phenomenon it is. Their loss is ours too, and in losing her, we lose them. Although never—not ever—our memories.