Keeping the magic of Pina Bausch alive

Berlin exhibition Pina Bausch And The Tanztheater (above) showcases the life work of legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch.
Berlin exhibition Pina Bausch And The Tanztheater (above) showcases the life work of legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BERLIN • The dance company that the late legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch grew into one of the world's most acclaimed is doing its utmost to foster her moving legacy.

Beloved of fellow artists and seen as a visionary by her peers in the dance world, Bausch mixed dance and theatre to produce a tumult of emotions free from traditional constraints, that often divided audiences.

"I'm not interested in how people move, but in what moves them," she said shortly before her death from cancer in 2009, aged 68.

Now her life's work is being honoured with a Berlin exhibition, Pina Bausch And The Tanztheater, where members of the company will hold up to five workshops a day for curious visitors and dance lovers until Jan 7.

"I couldn't have imagined that you could express yourself without difficult technique and that it could be so much fun," said Ms Kerstin Brennscheidt, 38, who had brought her son to rehearse a piece from Bausch's 1982 work, Nelken (Carnations).

The exhibition recreates the Lichtburg, a former cinema in the western industrial city of Wuppertal that Bausch turned into the headquarters of her dance revolution.

"Somehow she's still there in us. I feel her aura around us. It's overpowering," said Australian Jo Ann Endicott, 66, who became the choreographer's assistant after being one of the star dancers of the Tanztheater.

By the time Bausch died, her popularity was such that her company had to take the stage that very night to satisfy demand.

Things were very different when she began her work in the 1970s.

"We would begin our shows in packed rooms and end them in half- empty ones," the Tanztheater's Mechthild Grossmann told feminist magazine Emma in 2010. "In Bochum, in 1978, we had to stop the show. People were standing and throwing things onto the stage."

Bausch's personal style was in stark contrast with the classical forms that dominated the world of choreography at the time. She employed exaggerated expressions and scenery to explore the human condition with a mixture of mischief, sarcasm, joy and despair.

Beyond the choreography's energy, the Tanztheater survivors strive to communicate Bausch's humour and sensitivity to audiences that may not be steeped in modern dance.

There is no doubt the choreographer made history with her work and the earth, fields of carnations, waterfalls and animals that inhabited her stages have inspired many who came later.

But only the performers, with their deep bond to the company, can pass on their roles to others - a demanding task for such an intangible art form.

Bausch set dancers in motion with hints - "full moon", "desire" or "at the beginning" - before combining their responses into a whole. She once said: "When you've found what you're looking for, you know it."

Grossmann said: "Everything had to be reinvented from scratch. Just don't sing like a singer, just don't act like an actor, just don't dance like a dancer."

Since Bausch's death, her company has stepped up the effort of passing on her works to the younger generation within its own ranks and to other professional dancers.

Her disciples have revealed their secrets to the Paris Opera Ballet, the Bavarian state ballet and the National English Ballet in recent years. And Endicott has branched out even further by staging the dance Kontakthof with a group of teenagers and over-65s.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the troupe now is to begin creating something new, rather than just remaining in its founder's shadow as a living monument. For that, the members need a new artistic director, but as Endicott said: "You can't bring a copy of Pina, that's the most ridiculous thing you could do."

The three pieces offered by the Tanztheater at the end of last year met with mixed receptions.

Now, the faithful whom Bausch left behind have pinned their hopes on Adolphe Binder, a Romanian without dance training who will have to convince sceptics she can rekindle the magic in Wuppertal when she takes the reins in May.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'Keeping the magic of Pina Bausch alive'. Print Edition | Subscribe