Following World War II, modern dance in Germany experienced a shift. Out of Mary Wigman and Rudolf Laban’s Ausdruckstanz, or expressionist dance, a new genre grew: Tanztheater (dance theater). Poetic and pedestrian movement mixed with text, drama and sets to form highly theatrical works. German choreographer Pina Bausch is most associated with Tanztheater, and her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, remains one of the most celebrated modern dance companies worldwide.
Bausch was born in 1940 in Solingen, Germany. At age 14, she enrolled at the Folkwang School in Essen, led by choreographer Kurt Jooss. She studied there and danced in Jooss’ company for four years before traveling to New York City to attend The Juilliard School as an exchange student. During her brief time in the U.S., she was exposed to the artistry of José Limón, Louis Horst, Antony Tudor, Paul Taylor and the Martha Graham School faculty. She returned to Germany to dance and choreograph under Jooss’ mentorship for the next decade.
In 1967, she choreographed her first work, Fragment. The following year, Jooss retired, and Bausch took over the Folkwang School (and, eventually, his company). In 1973, she was invited to become the new artistic director of the Wuppertal Ballet in West Germany. She renamed the group Tanztheater Wuppertal and swiftly began producing innovative work.
At first, audiences and critics resisted the work. Unapologetically emotional, it forced audiences to confront dark themes like grief and despair. Bausch’s process involved posing questions to her dancers, having them act out their responses and then generating movement based on that material.
She solidified her reputation as a compelling dancemaker in 1975, with the creation of Le Sacre du Printemps, her reimagining of the historic 1913 The Rite of Spring by Vaslav Nijinsky. It was a sensation, danced on a floor covered in dirt, and has remained one of her most memorable and recognizable works.
Bausch continued leading her company for the next three decades, garnering international fame and numerous accolades, including a Bessie Award, the French Order of Arts and Letters and several honorary doctorates. She died at age 68, five days after being diagnosed with cancer.
- Le Sacre du Printemps (1975): Bausch kept the original libretto of a ritual sacrifice of a young woman in her remake of Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring. She conveyed the sacrifice through frenzied, convulsive movements—all performed on a layer of peat moss—that pushed her dancers’ stamina to the limits.
- Café Müller (1978): In this piece, based on her experience growing up in a hotel and restaurant run by her parents, Bausch danced on a dimly lit stage surrounded by dozens of café chairs. Meanwhile, a woman stumbles through the space with her eyes closed as a man swiftly moves chairs out of her way. Later, a woman in high heels scurries around anxiously.
- Kontakthof (1978): In a dance hall, men and women dressed in evening wear line the walls, gyrating and gesturing provocatively to the audience and each other. Near the end, a woman is surrounded by men who poke, prod, push and carry her, despite her obvious discomfort. Bausch later restaged this work on a cast of teens and a cast of people 65 and older.
- Vollmond (Full Moon) (2006): For this work, the stage was transformed into a landscape with a giant rock, a pool of water and even falling rain. Dancers throw buckets of water at the rock and each other, amidst a torrent of spinning, falling and frantic gestures. Other sections include spoken word, drinking, kissing and pantomime.
Bausch’s choreography explores themes of loss and alienation in works that are both abstract and narrative. She rarely used the conventional codified movements of ballet or modern dance, instead preferring energetic gestures, partnering and often violent movements like falling, pushing and hurling oneself through space. Her pieces are quintessentially Tanztheater because they combine movement, text and drama. They are performed in costumes and sets as essential to the works as the movement, many of which were designed by her professional collaborator and romantic partner, Rolf Borzik.
The Legacy Lives On:
Pina Bausch’s unique aesthetic—expressionistic, theatrical and highly physical—inspired generations of choreographers, including Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Bill T. Jones. Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, is based in Wuppertal, Germany, and continues to perform her works internationally each year. Bausch and members of her company were profiled with the use of groundbreaking camera work in Wim Wenders’ 2011 3-D documentary Pina.
Check out these resources for your students:
- “Face to Face: Pina Bausch,” by Jeni Tu, Dance Teacher, June 2008
- “Pina Bausch, German Choreographer, Dies at 68,” by Daniel J. Wakin, The New York Times, June 2009
- No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003
- Pina Bausch: The Biography, by Marion Meyer, translated by Penny Black, Oberon Books, 2018
- Pina Bausch’s Dance Theater: Company, Artistic Practices and Reception (Critical Dance Studies), by Gabriele Klein, Transcript Publishing, 2020
- Pina, (Wim Wenders, director), 2011
- Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: “Pina Bausch”: www.pina-bausch.de
- Pina Bausch Foundation: https://www.pinabausch.org