Beautiful and Beguiling: The Life and Work of Pina Bausch

Dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch passed away merely five days after learning she was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. She left behind her legacy at the Tanztheatre in Wuppertal, Germany, a company that was defined by her Neo-Expressionist form of movement. Her techniques were often strikingly influential, as much as they were controversial, and opened doors to new methods of movement for daring artists.

This article explores the impact of Bausch’s achievements and the humanistic message behind her synthesized stage sets and costume designs. Underneath the agonistic, distraught and often ravishing emotion portrayed by the dancers under the direction of Pina Bausch, lies the promise of a rewarding outcome – a message with real meaning.

Bausch’s choreography is heavily constructed by repetitive movements, used to convey emotion, turmoil and even confusion, which each audience member can relate to on some level. A series of movements might be interpreted as a longing for happiness or the haunting fears of childhood, although, it is difficult to know until you see it for yourself. The finished product is born throughout the process of its creation. According to Bausch, the creation process begins as a blank slate and starts out very small, gradually growing bigger until the pieces come together to form a single concept, which is created both conceptually and physically.

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While Bausch’s performances remain highly expressionistic and rely heavily on the audience to assign meaning to what is being portrayed, some critics find it difficult to conceptualise the morality within her work. For instance, her piece Café Muller, is characterised by its use of self-inflicted brutality followed by a desperate embrace between the dancers, recalling early experience of post-war Germany, a topic which defines much of Bausch’s choreography.

Following the death of her closely linked partner, set and costume designer, Rolf Borzic, Bausch released a piece titled 1980, which was criticized by the NY Times as “not profound” following its first performance, due to its startling movement and abstract expression. Nevertheless, the NY Times critic Anna Gisselgoff noted “its beautifully stated and humanist conclusion” that “focuses the better part of its energy on life,” despite its underlying message of death. On the other hand, Val Bourne, the power behind Dance Umbrella Festival in 1982, remembers the season as “euphoric [and] groundbreaking,” insisting that “no one had seen anything like it”.

The strength of Bausch’s choreography is supported by sublime and unusual set design, impressive dream-like scenarios, which can only be drawn out from imagination. In Viktor, 20-foot tall mud walls surround the dancers; in Arien, the floor is covered in water; in Palermo Palermo, cement bricks are lined at the back end of stage. The finished product is a combination of dance, speech, theatrical effects and music, while each performance retains the unique ability to shock and impress – it is not a question of whether the audience likes it, this appears to be completely irrelevant to the outcome of Bausch’s dance theatre. It is undoubtedly a spectacle in itself, part dream and part reality, making it difficult to fathom which one came first while the movement has its viewer mesmerised. The moments of brutality are juxtaposed with moments of great tenderness, which help to alleviate the dark thematic veil that headlines nearly all of her work. The performers are so emotionally and physically exhausted by the end that they fool the audience into wondering whether it was a performance at all; threads of reality become intertwined and boundaries are blurred.

Prior to each show, Bausch spends weeks with her designer conceptualising a poetic way to set her stage. Until 1980, the creative mind behind the set design and the costumes was Borzic, who was very well known and recognised as Bausch’s close friend, partner and collaborator at the Tanztheatre. Although unusual, Borzic used props and materials that were closely related to the everyday, yet retained their elegance and opulence throughout the creative process, and well into the performance. He also played with natural elements, using water and earth to signify the connection between what is whole and pure, and our humanistic relation to nature.

Following his Borzic’s death, set designer Peter Pabst was asked by Bausch to take the position of the theatre’s set designer, a decision he was not keen on making. Despite his doubts, it was the start of an “exceptionally close artistic and personal…symbiotic relationship” which would last until Bausch’s very last day. During his time at the Tanztheatre Wuppertal, Pabst diligently created six set designs for each piece and his creative direction was akin to Bausch’s own ideas. They both agreed on using natural elements, as Borzic had also done, so that the dancers could work with the design and incorporate it into their movements. The props had to serve a purpose, if not multiple roles, as the space created was intended to serve autonomous functions. Sensuality and poetic cohesion of the set was at top priority for the creative duo. The use of water, earth, flowers, dirt, wind and tempered light was a choice that provoked reactions such as: “uniquely disturbing and beautifully displaced.”

Marion Cito is the current head of costumes, having taken over the direction of Borzic. Given that having a sense of humanity is “one of the most defining aspects of a Bausch production,” it comes as no surprise that the costumes are designed as a delicate balance between elegance and the mundane, portraying the dancers as normal people. Although some designs might appear to be non-functional (evening dresses, high heels), Cito is well aware that “each costume must allow for the freedom of movement required for the performance” and must withstand any natural elements that are being used on stage. Thus you can imagine light, sheer fabrics, with enough heaviness to hold their shape, yet malleable enough to allow for free movement.

The most recent piece of Tanztheatre Wuppertal is, quite unfortunately, no longer under the direction of Pina Bausch. Even so, her very daring and committed team of dancers, designers and new artistic directors are following closely in line with her unique genre of dance theatre, having just finished their last week in London, and performing Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch: World Cities 2012. The recent documentary, PINA, as well as this production, are both intended to celebrate the life and achievements of Pina Bausch as a creator and an inspiration, who continuously amazed and bewildered us with her distinctive neo-expressionist productions, and recognised the universal needs of love, intimacy and emotional security as a recurring theme in her work.

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This article was originally published on 19 July 2012 by The Genteel.

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