A bold pioneer of modern dance whose legacy has transformed and transcended the art of movement.
“I'm not so interested in how they move as in what moves them”, German choreographer Pina Bausch famously said of her dancers. This radical approach to choreography and dance theatre established Pina as a visionary, breaking free from the conventions of her time. A unique performer and teacher, she blended movement with emotion to powerful effect, opening up the possibilities for what modern dance could be.
Born in 1940 in Stolingen, western Germany, Pina studied dance at the Folkwang School where she was introduced to Tanztheater, an avante-garde dance form that merged classical ballet with theatre. Pioneered by the school’s director Kurt Jooss, Tanztheater was a new expressionist style that emerged from the cultural innovation of Germany’s Weimar period and would form the basis of Pina’s method for the rest of her career. She continued her studies at Juilliard in New York, before performing and choreographing new work throughout the 1960s with leading figures of modern dance such as New American Ballet’s Paul Taylor and film choreographer Donya Feuer.
In 1975 Pina became artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet, later renamed to the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Here she experimented with collaborative techniques, costume, music and stage design to create the rich repertoire of original work we know today. In Café Müller, dancers perform with their eyes closed, stumbling helplessly across the stage as they crash into tables and chairs. Nelken (Carnations) explores dark themes of authority and oppression in a frothy sea of pink flowers. Water is the symbolic and literal motif in Vollmond (Full Moon) with the dancers drenching the stage and each other.
Currently running at London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) is one of her most iconic and celebrated pieces. Performed for the first time by the English National Ballet, the work shocked audiences when it was first staged in 1975. The stage is covered in a thick layer of fresh earth before the dancers appear barefoot. Set to Stravinsky’s turbulent score, the choreography is ritualistic, almost frenzied. The dancers pant audibly and in unison as they tell an unsettling narrative of misogyny and sacrifice.
Thanks to her rich visual language, Pina’s influence has spread far beyond the world of dance and theatre. David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour referenced Pina’s early work, and her lightweight Portuguese-style piece Masurca Fogo was the primary inspiration for Pedro Almodovar’s 2002 mystery-drama film Talk To Her. Artists Rachel Whiteread, Richard Wilson and Anthony Gormley are amongst the many who cite her as an influence, and countless designers reference her expressive use of colour, line and form.
Director Wim Wenders played tribute to Pina Bausch in his 2011 documentary Pina. Starring the tight-knit dancers of Pina’s Tanztheater Wuppertal company, the film showcases the visceral poetry of her choreography in immersive 3D. Tragically, Pina died suddenly at the age of 68 just before filming was due to begin.
Pina’s work is a rare, magical thing. Her art crosses boundaries, speaking to us honestly and directly about the universal nature of human experience. She investigated a broad spectrum of human emotion; fear and shame, love and lightness of being. Watching a Pina Bausch production is no passive experience. Jolting choreography pushes dancers to extremes and you can’t help but hold your breath. Elaborate, surreal stage sets are designed to immerse you in strange new worlds. With enchanting, gripping intensity, Pina’s intention was to move you.
By Natalya Frederick
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