Pina Bausch remembered
It was not without trepidation in 1984 that I first met Pina Bausch, the revolutionary German choreographer who died unexpectedly Monday at 68. Her Wuppertal Tanztheater was about to make its U.S. debut by opening the Olympic Arts Festival at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and I asked for an interview. She was unknown in the States, and what I had gathered from a not always admiring European press was that she was angry, violent, feminist, sexually intimidating, emasculating.
She said she would speak with me under two conditions: that I travel to Wuppertal, Germany, and that I first see her work. Of course, she didn’t have any performances on at the time and video was out of the question.
Reluctantly, she allowed me into a rehearsal at the Wuppertal Opera, where she was in residence in the dreary industrial town a half-hour train ride from Düsseldorf. She sent one of her dancers to meet me at the train station and take me to lunch. His job was to talk me out of proceeding any further.
He didn’t see how any of this was going to work. An outsider watching Bausch humiliate her dancers would be just too humiliating, he said. But I had heard how they were regularly forced to strip on stage, get slapped around, get down on all fours and perform other degrading acts that we now associate with the Abu Ghraib prison. I couldn’t see how the presence of a journalist was going to be all that embarrassing.
There would be no place for me to watch, he countered. I’d be in the dancers’ way. And Pina would probably shoo me away in the end anyway.
His alternative plan was to show me some videos, and I could write about them. But the Herald-Examiner, the then-feisty Los Angeles daily for which I worked, had sent me to Germany for an interview that would scoop the Los Angeles Times. So I nervously stuck to my original plan.
When we arrived at Bausch’s dance studio, I noticed a small, stern-looking woman in the corner while two dancers warmed up by practicing sexually predatory moves. Barely looking up, she shook hands with me. In a surprisingly soft voice, she politely invited the dancers to begin.
The dance was “Bluebeard.” A recording of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” was played on a tape recorder that Bluebeard wheeled around on a cart. He circled Judith, his prey, and violently threw her against the wall. She ferociously fought back.
Again and again Bausch stopped the dancers, praised them and ever so sweetly asked them to start over, as she lithely sidestepped falling bodies. To the amusement of all, I tried to follow her. When the tension became unbearable or it looked as if the dancers would be beaten to a pulp, Bausch flashed a sly smile and handed out cookies. She had baked them that morning. They were delicious.
Eventually, I understood that Bausch had been putting me on all along. She prepared me for the interview not by showing me her work but making me a momentary participant. In the end, she proved to be a warm, gracious, amusing and brilliantly perceptive interview. We talked about politics and music (she was an important social critic and had a remarkable ear).
Bausch was born in Solingen, Germany’s city of knives, and she didn’t have an edge but many edges, soft ones and hard ones. She told me she didn’t know all that much about music or visual art and wasn’t particularly interested in formal dance. She said she operated on instinct. If that were true, her instinct was enormous, because she was a multifaceted artist who operated on a vast scale.
She became associated with big spectacles that were part-theater, part-dance battles of the sexes and society played out in extravagant environments. She might litter her stage with zillions of carnations or put her company in pools of water. Her highly sexed world-weary women paraded around in high heels, clothed and nude – just like the men. They beat each other up and the men usually ended up worse for the wear.
Everything always looked amazing – costumes, sets, lights and, of course, movement. Just as Bausch gave out cookies in rehearsal to relieve pressure, she came up with startling ways to do the same thing in her work. A dancer in a crazed rage would suddenly burst out in a wonderful laugh.
Bausch’s work was loaded with metaphors, but what they meant exactly wasn’t entirely clear. Aggression unleashed inexplicable strangeness, and strangeness turned into ravishing beauty.
The last work Bausch presented in America was “Bamboo Blues,” her entrancing vision of India at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last December. It had its tough moments, its silly moments, its singularly Bauschian quality of turning sentimentality on its ear. One recurring motif was placing a lighted match under a dancer’s feet, which he wiggled merrily as if being tickled. No one could mingle pleasure and pain into an exotic paradise quite like Bausch.
Love is not a word regularly employed in all the serious discourse about a somber German artist who seemed to delight in inventing novel ways with which couples could torment each other. But I was floored on the day in Wuppertal, 25 years ago, by her tenderness and by the way she repeatedly spoke of love and about concern for her dancers' well being.
Ultimately, Bausch’s gift wasn’t for destruction but creation. She was a tough-as-nails realist ready to see the dark side of things. But whatever falls apart in her work sooner or later gets put back together again. She made catharsis a profound picking up of the pieces. And she was also good for a laugh and for coming up with a tune that stuck with you. How are we going to get along without her?
-- Mark Swed
Photo: At top, a scene from Pina Bausch's "Nelken" ("Carnations") at UCLA's Royce Hall in 1999. Photo credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
At right, dancers in Pina Bausch's last work, which was untitled and had its premiere June 12 in the Opera House in Wuppertal, Germany. Photo credit: Rolf Vennenbernd / EPA
Bottom: Bausch in 2008. Credit: Michael Probst/Associated Press