Life Is No Cabaret to Germany's Pina Bausch, but Her Stark, Bizarre Dances Are Ballet's Hippest Hit
Those qualities, dramatized on the stage, are what have helped Pina Bausch, 45, create an original style of dance that has shocked and entranced people around the globe. The works performed by her Wuppertal Tanz-theater Company—in a three-week engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—are as stark and dour as her appearance. But sophisticated students of dance have found beauty under the surface, and her avant-garde work has attracted a new audience to the ballet—a young, fashionable crowd that would look at home at, say, a Talking Heads concert. "For many she has become something of a high priestess," says Ballet News' Allen Robertson, "an artist whose power has reached phenomenal proportions."
Bausch's pieces, mixing wanton dance with absurd speeches, have been compared to lurid German Expressionist paintings. Her performers are hardly a vision of idealized humanity; some look scrawny and tired, others old and plain. Their movements are often savage—they throw themselves at one another and at the stage walls. Sometimes the movement is mundane—in one piece the dancers serve tea to the audience and chat about childhood games. In a dance to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, they writhe in sweaty leotards on a dirt-covered stage. In Arienne, cross-dressed men and women splash through a shallow pool onstage.
Bausch's art requires a patient audience. For nearly four hours the dancers may repeat variations on the same simple motions and phrases. "Nothing happens and it happens over and over again," The New Yorker critic Arlene Croce wrote exhaustedly after a Bausch performance last year. "It is 35 minutes long and it feels 90." Bausch dancer Melanie Lien, one of the few Americans in the company, says her Midwestern parents left one of the shows angry. "Mother thought Pina was a man-hater who needed to find religion," says Lien. "And Father said I should come home and drive trucks."
Critics ache to categorize Bausch's ambiguous work. They say her dancers enact the brutal battle between the sexes. Bausch shies away from interpretation. "It is never something you can describe exactly," she says. "It is something that you see, and you know it without being able to formulate it." She admits only that her pieces are about "the difficulties for human beings—love, death and being afraid of death."
Knowing how Bausch makes her works helps to explain them. Each spring her dancers meet in a former cinema in Wuppertal, a city of 399,000 in West Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley. From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a four-hour break, they sit in a circle as Bausch throws out such phrases as "the lull before the storm" and "making a weakness something positive." Then each dancer interprets the phrase with a few steps or a gesture. Because the dancers range in age from 21 to 44 and come from all over the world, the responses vary wildly. Over months Bausch edits and choreographs their bits into a single work.
"We trust Pina," says Swiss dancer Anne Martin, 32. "Even if we don't always understand what she's doing." That's why the dancers accept a relatively low monthly salary of $1,600. They also endure Bausch's perfectionism and near complete control over their lives. Melanie Lien caused a crisis when she showed up at a rehearsal with her long blond hair cut short. "Pina was furious because she regards hair as an important extension of the body," says Lien, who is growing her hair again. "And now she has forbidden anyone to change their appearance without her permission."
Bausch's dance career began at 6, as she pirouetted around the tables at her father's hotel-restaurant in Solingen, not far from Wuppertal. Some actors who saw her there encouraged her to dance, and later, at 14, she attended the Folkwang Ballet run by the much esteemed Kurt Jooss. Inspired in part by a performance of José Limón's American Company, Bausch decided to go to New York City as a teenager to study at Juilliard. After seven years with such troupes as the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, she returned to West Germany to be one of Jooss' principal dancers. In no time she made her mark as a choreographer as well and eventually took over Jooss' company. In 1972 she left to form a new dance troupe at Wuppertal.
Now living in an unfashionable industrial section of town with a Chilean professor of literature and their son, Rolf Salomon, 4, Bausch finds little time for anything but choreography. She rarely performs, except to play a sort of sleepwalker in a piece called Cafe Müller. "It is like Hitchcock," she says. "I just put my nose in." Before a show Bausch neither gushes praise nor delivers a tirade. She works, making blunt corrections and giving monotonic orders right up until the curtain rises. On opening nights, before the performers go on, she looks them in the eye, wraps her gangly arms around them and gives them a hug. So begins the dance.