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The Singular Art of Pina Bausch

A black and white photo of a group of women running across stage

Pina Bausch is one of the greats. That much is known, but do we know why?

When addressing the question, one word invariably crops up in the answer: “Tanztheater”. This is an art-form which Bausch re-invented when she began her work in Wuppertal in the early 1970s and has no English equivalent. (The French call it, prettily, théâtre dansé.) But perhaps the issue goes beyond the existence of a German compound noun. Bausch doesn’t fit. Moreover, assigning a reviewer to see her work, a newspaper editor would be quite justified in sending along a critic for the visual arts, or even musicals. Someone expecting to enjoy pure dance will, initially, be perplexed by conversations, songs, eating and drinking, newspapers on fire, stuffed animals, difficulties with clothes, loud quarrels, and outright disrespect for the conventions of stage ‘realism’. Bausch hates nothing more than realism. And, invariably, her strange imagination wins over the doubtful.

Bausch has always drawn heavily on Surrealism – the imagery, for example, of Belgian René Magritte, Frenchman Balthus and her fellow German Max Ernst. Surrealism contains, within its prolix gestures and mad thinking, marvellous metaphors which deliberately mean nothing. In art, the empirical Brits generally strive for sense; the experimental Germans – not always experimental for the good, of course – devoutly desire the testing of the real. In Bausch, who understands dance from the inside and long ago found classicism wanting, sense runs headlong into the unexpected, usually inarticulable catastrophes that shape our lives and psyches, and loses. Some would call that a definition of tragedy.

Looking back on her first experiments, Bausch herself has said:

The words ‘to dance’ had for them [the dancers] a precise meaning. It was hard to make them understand that dance can be expressed in another form. Dance is not a single technique. It would be incredibly arrogant to disallow the title of ‘dance’ for numerous other things. But I also think that only a good dancer can make the simplest things happen. It’s very complex. I never ask of them something private, but something precise. When a dancer gives his or her response, the response concerns everyone.

In a culture like ours, where categorisation counts for much, the stagings of Pina Bausch seek in vain for an easy name, concrete meaning, rational description… none of which can be found in what she actually does. Her world is elliptical, post-rational, pre-classical. She has – and this makes her both shameless and special – the unique ability to unite on stage the flailing impulses of a child with the witty self-consciousness of adulthood. These qualities were immediately on show in these two seminal works, which remain as fresh, startling and transporting as they were when first seen in another century and a smaller Germany. If anything, their originality has deepened with time.

From The Singular Art of Pina Bausch By James Woodall
2008 programme for Café Muller & The Rite of Spring