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Mixed emotions.

Pina Bausch spent three years in New York, from 1959 to 1962. She studied at the Juilliard School with Antony Tudor and danced with, among others, Paul Sanasardo and Paul Taylor. But before that she trained at Kurt Jooss' Fulkwang School in Essen, where she subsequently taught, and since her return to her native Germany she has been the quintessential German dance artist. Which accounts for much of her strength (the rest can be chalked up to individual genius) and part of the problems some American dance critics have had with her work.

As a choreographer, which she has been since 1968, Bausch has been an unabashed exponent of Tanztheater, of dance theater, first developed by Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman between the two world wars. Her own company, founded in 1973, is called Dance Theater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. America has its own tradition of dance theater, like American Ballet Theatre and such American practitioners as Martha Graham and Anna Sokolow. But it's waned a bit since Balanchine and Cunningham. Given the classicist mindset of so many American critics now, the very notion of dance allied with (sub-servient to?) theater raises hackles. For them, too much of Bausch's movement consists of determined athleticism more than "pure dance," whatever that may be.

Hers is hardly drawing room comedy theater, at least not most of the time. Bausch is German in portraying a prevailingly grim, bleak view of the world, and of relations between the sexes. There is violence in Bausch's art, and pain. Such ideas do not sit well with Americans who, contrary to all available evidence, prefer instinctively to take a sunnier view of things.

Bausch is no overt feminist, either: Her women are less champions of a bright new tomorrow for their sex than locked into a seemingly eternal battle with men. And above all this gloom and doom sits Pina Bausch, impassively, refusing to take a clear, let alone politically correct, moral stance.

So why, then, is Bausch so popular in the United States? Not popular in the sense that she tours like Anna Pavlova. But since her performances at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival in 1984, she has appeared regularly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival and college performing arts series around the county.

The answer is that, for all the reservations some might feel, for most audiences, an evening in Pina Bausch's world draws one into a gripping, disorienting, often thrilling experience. For them, who cares if this is dance or theater or some Teutonic hybrid?

To my taste, for all the sometimes bizarre variants of the dance surface (flowers, earth, water, etc.) and for all the shifts in company personnel over the years and in ostensible themes, Bausch's dances are much like one another. See three in a row and you've seen maybe one too many. This consistency attests to her strength of vision but is also a limitation. One wonders how they feel in Wuppertal, seeing her month after month, year after year.

But she soldiers on, probing and experimenting and yes, surprising. Her latest effort was a version of her 1978 classic Kontakthof set on dancers over the age of 65. For Brooklyn this season, she is bringing a work from 2002 called For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Another multi-generational work, it contains the usual physical risk and is described as a series of solos set to Latin music and pop crooning, with "stark white walls" as the setting. But its underlying message, according to BAM's publicity, is that "goodness always prevails." Not very German, that. Maybe this time, ever-optimistic Americans will like her even more than they have already.

John Rockwell is the senior cultural Correspondent of The New York Times.
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Author:Rockwell, John
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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