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Pina Bausch: the voice from Germany.

It's been some twelve years since Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal first appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and provoked one American critic to apply the epithet Eurotrash to the work of Bausch. Up to that time, the German city of Wuppertal was primarily known as the birthplace of Karl Marx's collaborator, Friedrich Engels, and noted for its Schwebebahn, the turn-of-the-century suspension railway that looks as if it had been welded together from leftover pieces of the Eiffel Tower. Now, thanks to Bausch, Wuppertal is a mecca for European dance. Jochen Schmidt, critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has watched her work closely ever since she emerged from the protective mantle of Kurt Jooss at the Folkwang Dance Studio in Essen in the early seventies. Schmidt is unequivocal. "Pine is, together with William Forsythe, the most influential choreographer working in Europe today."

In the twenty-three years since Bausch founded her company with some of the dancers who are still with her, she has produced more than thirty full-length, collage-like pieces. Her output includes Fruhlingsopfer ("Rite of Spring," 1975), Kontakthof and Cafe' Muller (both 1978), Arien (1979), Walcer (1982), Ahnen (1987), and Danzon (1994). She has also created a site-inspired work based on her experiences in Lisbon (Viktor, 1986), Madrid (Tanzabend II, which had actually premiered six months earlier in 1991 in Wuppertal), Palermo (Palermo, Palermo; 1989), and Vienna (Ein Trauerspiel ("A Mourning Play," 1994).

This month the Bausch company will return to California for the first time since its appearance at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. It will present Nur Du (Only You): A Piece by Pina Bausch, a commission by a consortium of western and southwestern arts presenters. The work will premiere on October 3 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, then travel to Los Angeles; Tempe, Arizona; and Austin, Texas. Nur Du is the first work Bausch has created outside Europe. It will be based on themes of the American West.

In the past Bausch's performers have sunk into peat, rammed stiletto heels into sod, crawled over rubble, sloshed through water, and tiptoed through carnations. Her dancers talk and sing and scream. They attack each other, they embrace each other; they walk, crawl, and fall, all the while making familiar gestures-disgusting, obscene, tender, funny. Their partners have included a polar bear, a hippopotamus, and, most recently, a floating whale. Bausch has been praised for focusing on the fundamentals of human behavior and condemned for not varying her thematic material. Her work has been acclaimed for the richness of its textural details and censured for being formless and repetitive.

Though Nur Du is Bausch's first site-inspired piece outside Europe, she is not unfamiliar with the United States--at least with life on the East Coast. Her company often appears at BAM, and she spent four years in New York City, where she enrolled at Juilliard in 1959. During those years, it was neither Balanchine nor Cunningham, the formalist giants of the time, who exerted a pull on her imagination, but choreographers such as Anna Sokolow, Jose Limon, Paul Sanasardo, and Antony Tudor--artists who often think of women and men in terms of how they relate to each other. It's these complicated and often contradictory relationships that are the beating heart of Bausch's work.

Bausch doesn't like to talk about herself. She hates interviews and refuses to give them. When one becomes unavoidable, her resistance is palpable. In a 1993 documentary about her company, for instance, she never once looked at the camera. A few informal encounters earlier this year revealed her to be an intensely private person: quiet, soft-spoken, but perfectly polite, with the same enigmatic smile often seen on her dancers' faces, but giving the impression that she would really much rather be doing something else. Lutz Forster, professor of dance at Folkwang Dance Studio, and an on-again, off-again member of Bausch's company since 1975, offers another reason for her reticence: "Pine is very clear about what she does, but she doesn't want to talk about it because she is suspicious of words. They can so easily be misunderstood."

Still, certain things can be surmised from glimpses of conversations. At one point in a talk with critic Schmidt, she told him what has become her most famous dictum: "I am not interested in how people move, but why they move." At another time, during a panel discussion early in her career, Jooss and Bausch were asked how they had influenced each other. "They didn't say anything for a long time," Schmidt recalls, "but then they both answered with one word: honesty."

Like an archaeologist, Bausch digs up what social conventions and our self-protecting mechanisms insist on hiding. She scratches into the soil of human nature and then assembles her artifacts, shards and all. The picture that emerges is always multihued, though its shadows often tend to be overpowering. Schmidt believes that at least some of Bausch's darkness of the soul is rooted in personal experience: "She was at her most turbulent after the death of the love of her life; after the birth of her son, the work became much sunnier."

Violence, particularly against women, has been a particularly galling aspect of Bausch's work. Even though much diminished in later works, it is unlike any that we are used to seeing in the theater-at least in the West. (In pulp-fiction movies in some Asian countries, for instance, an extraordinary amount of violence is tolerated.) Women are slapped around, used as battering rams, backed into corners like trapped rats, paraded like sleepwalking dummies, and dropped from embraces like pieces of garbage into a sewer. The question that arises, of course, is whether putting such brutal behavior onstage represents a false, maybe even sensationalized reality, or an emotional truth that we don't want to see.

Forster is very clear on the subject. "It is a violent world," he says, "and for critics in New York to object to the violence is sort of absurd, isn't it?" Another former dancer, Meryl Tankard, now director of Meryl Tankard's Australian Dance Theatre, remembers that as an outsider she was impressed by Germany as a source of violence in Bausch's work. "When I was there I could feel it, [the weight] of history in that country. But then it's not really surprising, considering what they have gone through. The angst [in Bausch's work] comes from the culture."

But honesty also means accepting and showing the dichotomy, contradiction, ambiguity, and complexity of human behavior. People do hit each other, but they also embrace. People fall, but they also get up. Again and again. Maybe that's why Bausch uses repetition--another irritant for some--so persistently. For both Forster and Tankard this is a nonissue. First of all, they say, all of dance is full of repetition--just think of the thirty-two fouettes in Swan Lake. Second, repetitions are never identical. They always change.

Repetition, like a loop in a film, is a formal device that stops the action. It allows us to take a deep breath but also forces us to stop and take note. "She wants us to look closely," Schmidt explains. Cubist painters could present multiple perspectives on one canvas. Bausch uses repetition so that we can look at emotionally complex actions from multiple perspectives. But do gestures and phrases, particularly offensive ones, repeated over and over lose their impact, as some have claimed, or do they complicate our response to them? Reaching out toward a partner only to be rebuffed again and again is a very common motif in Bausch. Does this tell us something about how awful to each other, how gluttonous for punishment, how irredeemably hopeful and basically optimistic, or how easily blunted we are?

Sometimes overlooked in Bausch's work is just how funny a lot of it is. People walk around with mice on their chests or sing arias to them. They dance the tango while seated on the floor. A very plain woman drags a whole chain of men behind her. Life as a variety show or as a Chaplinesque movie is also a part of the Bausch credo. Schmidt acknowledges the existence of humor, though he says that it may take a second and third performance to see it; humor often gets obscured by some of the surface elements of the shows.

Her most underrated trait, however, is tenderness, overlooked for the same reason that bad news makes the newspapers and good news doesn't. But I saw it rise to the surface most clearly in Nur Du, the new work about the American West. In it a group of rootless, lonely people try to remake each other and themselves. It's a hopeless situation, but there is nobility in their persistence. Living in a country where trees dwarf them and where the ground persists in shaking, they still keep reaching out to each other. And they often do so tenderly.

After one of the preview performances, I mentioned that tenderness to Bausch. "Thank you for having seen it," she said, and smiled and took my hand.
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Title Annotation:German dance choreographer
Author:Felciano, Rita
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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