I'm a Pinaholic...

My name is Helen, and I'm a Pinaholic...

...You probably are too.

It started one night in 1982, when I hit an unintended button on my remote control. I was confronted with what looked like an alternative Miss World contest: a line of provocatively solemn women in long silk 1930s gowns were baiting an equally teasingly serious line of men in tuxedos. They all seemed to be playing party games. They'd break off for some frantic rushing around, or process in a formal circle, arms arching like swans' necks. Then they'd pause for another game. Who was winning? I sat transfixed for the next three hours. By the end it was an uneasy tie, I decided, each performer both victor and victim. Whoever had conceived it had a complex, sophisticated vision of human affairs as a messy mosaic of warring impulses.

That was the Tanztheater Wuppertal piece titled 1980, filmed at Sadler's Wells and shown on Channel 4 and it set me on a mission to see the company wherever I could afford it. Holidays from now on were plotted around its schedule. Paris was easiest. I would queue early in the morning outside the Chatelet Theatre for a day ticket when the company made its annual visit. I'd sit on the unforgiving floor of the Pompidou Centre's videotheque watching rare tapes of Pina pieces for hour after hour - Blaubart, Wälzer, the extraordinary Frühlingsopfer. I went to Edinburgh, to Berlin, to Wuppertal itself. Everywhere I would find hordes of the faithful, standing outside the theatre all day toting little signs saying, 'Ticket wanted, please.' Sometimes fellow addicts would become instant chums, desperately happy to swap notes - which is how I ended up nattering away with the late Susan Sontag like a longlost friend: possibly the world's greatest Pinaholic.

Over the past 25 years, I've seen 18 different pieces, some more than once; I've met the great lady several times, interviewed her, bought every book on her I can find. I have never tired of wanting to immerse myself in this uniquely rich world, to expose myself to what it flings out at me - beauty, pain, anxiety, laughter. The occasional hippo lumbering through six inches of water. I wanted more than anything to re-encounter the dancers who are the fibre and tissue of the pieces and who so generously give of themselves - apparently as themselves - that you end up thinking you know them. Will Lutz be in tonight's show? Nazareth? Beatrice and Jan? Helena and Dominique?

This sounds like mindless fandom, but it's actually, I came to realise, the essence of Bausch's work that you identify with the performers so closely. They aren't just vehicles for her ideas; their lives and experiences provide the raw material, too. For them, it's personal. I once asked her where the inspiration for her pieces came from. There was the usual long pause, the signature smiling shrug and nod of the head. I clumsily suggested, 'From your own life?' (you always feel clumsy around Pina Bausch). 'No, she said emphatically, 'not from my life - from our life.' This is her greatest hope for her work, that, rather like music, it will mysteriously find a way of communicating to people anywhere in the world, even if they don't know why as they watch.

So I have to confess feeling something of a fraud, writing this piece. Wonderful though my odyssey has been, it doesn't make me more of an 'expert' on Pina Bausch than you are. If you have been exhilarated, stirred and moved by what her dancers do, then you too are an expert. You get it. And it's this ability to speak directly to an audience, to pierce right through whatever critical apparatus they arm themselves with, that is at the heart of her unique genius. She offers big, complicated truths without footnotes; it's high art without homework. And she has changed for ever my sense of what can be achieved inside a theatre.

Helen Hawkins, Culture Editor, Sunday Times
 2008 programme for Café Muller & The Rite of Spring

Pina Bausch
Palermo Palermo (1989)


In line with government guidance, Sadler’s Wells continues to present performances to socially distanced audiences. Read more