Traveling the world with Pina Bausch is as easy as buying a ticket to the theater and watching one of her evening-length works. When you witness one of these spectacles, each of your senses is tapped: from the incredibly elaborate and illusory sets, to the blend of live music, spoken word, and the sounds of bodies in motion; from the evocative interplay between characters, to the visceral exposition of sensations. If you could taste dance, it’s Bausch’s shows that would allow for it.
In December, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch will make their eleventh appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, inviting the audience to travel to South India through Bamboo Blues. The work was made in co-production with the Goethe-Institut, which supported Bausch, her longtime stage designer Peter Pabst, and several dancers on a research trip through several Indian cities. Bausch often works with different cities for funding and inspiration. For example, Viktor was created in co-production with Teatro Argentina in Rome, Tanzabend II was created in co-production with Festival de Otoño in Madrid, and Nefés was created in co-production with the International Istanbul Theatre Festival and the Istanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts.
A master of the German expressionist dance tradition Ausdruckstanz, Bausch’s works stress ideas and feelings rather than a linear storyline. Bausch has said she’s...“not interested in how people move, but in what moves them.” Her imaginative works seem to be like moving collages, grand scale trompe l’oeil. “It is almost unimportant whether a work finds an understanding audience,” Bausch has said. “One has to do it because one believes that it is the right thing to do. We are not only here to please, we cannot help challenging the spectator.”
Bausch blurs the lines of text, movement, and song; she draws from themes that revolve around issues of sexuality and gender roles; and her sets are anything but subtle: in Viktor, the entire stage is converted to a mud-walled pit, and in Nelkin, it is covered in thousands of pink carnations. Yet somehow the dancing, talking, and acting seem so simple, so tangible.
Born in Solingen, Germany in 1940, Bausch began dancing at 15, when she enrolled at the Folkwang School in Essen, Germany, directed by Kurt Jooss. When she graduated, she was awarded a scholarship to continue her studies in the U.S. In 1961, she began studying at Juilliard, where her teachers included modern dance pioneer José Limón, iconic ballet choreographer Antony Tudor, and Martha Graham’s lead dancers Mary Hinkson, Ethel Winter, and Helen McGhee. When she returned to Germany in 1962, she joined Jooss’s newly formed Folkwang-Ballett and within a few years was working on choreography of her own. In 1973, Bausch was asked to be the director and choreographer of a ballet company called Wuppertaler Tanztheater, which would later become Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. All told, Bausch has created more than forty evening-length pieces, including her The Rite of Spring (1975), which later was staged on the Paris Opera Ballet. Her name and style are also recognizable from the Pedro Almodovar film Talk to Her, in which her Café Müller and Masurca Fogo are excerpted. Bausch’s surrealistic approach has been irrefutably influential on the world of modern dance; among the long list of choreographers inspired and influenced by her are Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, Lloyd Newson, Robert Lepage, Peter Stein, William Forsythe, and Robert Wilson.
It’s been two years since Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed in Brooklyn, but the company and BAM have a long history: as the group’s exclusive New York home, BAM has presented 1980, Café Müller, Bluebeard, and Rite of Spring (1984); Arien, Gebirge, and Seven Deadly Sins (1985); Carnations and Viktor (1988); Palermo, Palermo and Bandoneon (1991); Two Cigarettes in the Dark (1994); Der Fensterputzer (1997); Danzón (1999); Masurca Fogo (2001); and Für die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen (2004). The company’s last visit was in December 2006, when they performed Nefés (Turkish for “breath”). Inspired by time spent in Istanbul, Bausch morphed the stage into a Turkish bath house, then a bustling city, then a strange picnic of sorts. In one scene, we look inside a waterfall—which causes the entire stage to fill, literally, with water, as men in business suits thrash about and women in silk dresses swim through on their stomachs. Then the water leaves and we’re rubbing our eyes, thinking, “Was it all a mirage?”
Shantala Shivalingappa, an Indian classical dancer, has guest performed with Pina Bausch’s company for the past ten years, and toured with them in Nefés, Viktor, and now Bamboo Blues. Bamboo Blues has a special significance to Shivalingappa since she was born in South India. She says the piece is not about India, but rather a reflection of the things that inspired Bausch during her time there. The company traveled to India together to do research, and then to tour the work. “It was interesting to travel with them in India and to see my country through their eyes,” Shivalingappa says. “It’s very nice to be a part of a piece by Pina which is inspired by my country.”
Though it’s hard for her to pin down a favorite part of Bamboo Blues, “there’s one moment where we do a sort of catwalk, the men and the women, and we’re wearing dothin (a sarong kind of cloth) from South India,” she explains. “I think that’s a moment that’s full of humor. And it’s a way of using something that’s Indian but not in an Indian way at all.”
Shivalingappa feels lucky to have the chance to work with Bausch and her company. “It’s a very enriching environment to be in. And to be around [Pina], to see her work, to be in her pieces, it’s just one of the strongest experiences. Her work is so unique—the language, the media that she’s evolved, the dance and the theatre and the way she puts things together. But mainly her own sensitivity and talent as an artist,” she says. “She portrays life on stage through dance and music.”
BAM will present Bamboo Blues December 11 – 20. BAM.org
Emily Macel is an associate editor at Dance Magazine.