“There are situations of course that leave you utterly speechless. All you can do is hint at things. Words, too, can’t do more than just evoke things. That’s where dance comes in again.”
Artform: Tanztheater (dance theatre)
Pina Bausch was a powerhouse of contemporary dance practice, in Germany and the wider world. From her company ‘Tanztheater Wuppertal’, Bausch re-invented the style tanztheater; the legacy of which is still felt throughout the world of dance today.
Bausch was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1940. She danced from an early age, performing in the Solingen children’s ballet, before joining the Folkwang School in Essen, studying under Kurt Jooss. Jooss was a believer in the pre- and post-war German modern dance movement, which was freer and less constrained than classical ballet. However, in his teaching, Jooss taught his students to marry the two styles, giving a solid grounding in classical practice, alongside an expressive and open style. Bausch was highly influenced by this, as well as by her proximity to other artforms at the Folkwang School, including drama, visual art, and opera.1
This exposure to a broad spectrum of artistic expression no doubt led Pina to create ‘tanztheater’; more than dance and more than theatre, ‘tanztheater’ combines spoken word, movement, music, singing, theatre, costume and props. Usually, ‘tanztheater’ has no narrative, it instead can explore specific situations, human conflict or fears.2
In 1973, Bausch’s career began as artistic director of Tanztheater Wuppertal, and it was here that her exploration into tanztheater as an artform began its journey. Bausch had the dancers sing, speak and event laugh and cry during performances, bringing a new wave of expression to the strict, traditional forms of classical dance technique.
Bausch’s Bluebeard was the first such exhibition of tanztheater, and was received with anger, outrage and abuse from audiences. Described as “pornography of pain” by one New Yorker article, audiences objected to the depiction of gender violence among other difficult themes. The piece had to stop being performed in 1994, as the Bartok estate, which initially gave permission, objected to the use of Bartok’s opera ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ in Bausch’s piece.3
Bausch passed away in 2009, but her legacy and Tanztheater Wuppertal live on. As recently as March 2020, dancers from 14 different African countries gathered together at the Ecole des Sables in Senegal to perform a daring production of Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. The performance was unfortunately cancelled a week before opening, due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, but Salomon Bausch, Pina Bausch’s son and co-deviser of the project, suggested the dancers have one final run through of the piece on the beach; a performance which was captured by a documentary crew that was following the dancers. 4
Pina Bausch revolutionised modern dance throughout the world with her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. She will be remembered as one of the most significant choreographers of the twentieth century.