Obituary: Pina Bausch

German choreographer whose bleak vision changed the face of European dance

The work of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who has died aged 68 of cancer, had a controversial, often violent starkness. Nonetheless, as director of her own company in Wuppertal, south of the Ruhr industrial region, she inspired a devoted following at home and abroad, and proved to be very influential.

Bausch began dancing at a young age. She was born in Solingen, the "city of blades", in North-Rhine Westphalia, the third child of August Bausch, proprietor of a small hotel and restaurant, and his wife, Anita. With her parents absorbed in business matters, the young Pina learned to entertain herself, sitting up late under the restaurant tables, or mounting impromptu dances for the amusement of the clientele.

Her talent, and her unusual physical flexibility, did not escape notice, and by 14 she was enrolled in the Folkwang Academy in Essen, then directed by Kurt Jooss. The expressionist choreographer, who in 1933 had been forced to leave Germany when he refused to dismiss the Jews in his company, became a mentor to Bausch. He was one of the founders of the ausdruckstanz (free dance) movement, whose proponents believed in combining dance, music and drama in performance. His pupil, in consequence, was exposed to a wide variety of artistic disciplines.

"At this time at the Folkwang, all the arts were together," Bausch told the Guardian in 2002. "It was not just the performing arts like music or acting or mime or dance, but there were also painters, sculptors, designers, photographer. If you just went to a little ballet school, the experience would have been entirely different."

In 1959, Bausch left Germany with a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New York. At just 18 she was daunted by the experience - "She was very shy and cried a lot," according to her friend the choreographer Donya Feuer - but it was the right place and the right time: her teachers at Juilliard would include Antony Tudor and José Limón, both of them choreographers with a distinctive, questioning voice. Bausch was soon performing with Tudor at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and with Paul Taylor at New American Ballet. When in 1960 Taylor was invited to premiere a new work named Tablet in Spoleto, Italy, he took Bausch with him.

But it was with Feuer and a choreographer named Paul Sanasardo that Bausch truly revealed her potential. In 1961, the three collaborated on two pieces. "Pina had a great gift," said Sanasardo. "She was an extremely beautiful dancer. Tudor had staged this piece at Juilliard in which Pina danced a section called 500 Arabesques, and she did it on point ... She was very lyrical and she also had a tremendous intensity."

In 1962, following weight loss which may have been related to an eating disorder, Bausch returned to Essen, where she joined Jooss's new Folkwang Ballett. That year, although still thin, she performed the role of Caroline in Tudor's psychological masterwork Jardin aux Lilas (1936), about a woman on the point of entering a loveless marriage. Threatened with dismissal, she put on weight, recovered her health, and was soon acting as Jooss's assistant. In 1968 she created her own first work, Fragment, to music by Béla Bartók. It would be followed by other short pieces, all of them rejections of ausdruckstanz. Bausch was looking for her own language. "I didn't want to imitate anybody," she said. "Any movement I knew, I didn't want to use."

The next year she took over the directorship of the Folkwang Tanzstudio, as it was by then known, a position she would hold until 1973, when she was offered the directorship of the Ballett der Wuppertaler Bühnen. Overcoming initial reservations - Wuppertal was an unlovely town with a reputation for conservatism - Bausch accepted the post. Renaming the company Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, a move which gives a clue as to the steeliness of her intent, Bausch launched herself with a piece named Fritz, which, by all accounts, was surreally bleak even by the standards she herself would later set. Noting the audience's negative reaction, Bausch drew in her claws.

A period of more or less conventional choreography followed, culminating in Frühlingsopfer, a magisterial three-part work including her version of The Rite of Spring. In this piece, performed on a layer of garden mulch, the narrative is transformed into a fable of superstition and misogyny in which a young woman in a red dress is sacrificed to assuage the sexual hatred of those around her. By the end, the cast is sweat-streaked, filthy and audibly panting. As a statement of intent, Frühlingsopfer was unequivocal, and it was swiftly followed by Bausch's version of the Brecht/Weill opera The Seven Deadly Sins, featuring a detailed scene of gang rape.

In 1977, Bausch presented her version of Bluebeard, which introduced the fractured style of her mature work. She introduced chaotic speech elements, with the dancers calling out seemingly random phrases as Bluebeard stumped around a stage strewn with dead leaves, playing snatches of Bartók from a tape recorder attached to his leg. The physical action, which again featured a rape, includes sequences in which violent gestures are repeated to the point where they become all but unwatchable, suggesting the characters' profound alienation. A number of her works contain such tableaux, prompting the New Yorker critic Arlene Croce to condemn what she called Bausch's "theatre of dejection". "She keeps referring us to the act of brutality or humiliation - to the pornography of pain," wrote Croce when the Wuppertal company played the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984.

Bluebeard was followed by a series of pieces whose sexually violent themes took the company close to implosion. "In one rehearsal, all the men in the company had to do six ways of groping you and kissing you and it was just like being raped ... I finally broke down crying," said the American dancer Meryl Tankard, who joined the company in 1978. Painful as the process might have been, the results saw the reconfiguration of the European dance landscape. Works such as Cafe Müller (1978), perhaps inspired in part by those childhood games under her parents' restaurant tables, may be bleak, but they are also profound and beautiful, and carry a fierce existential charge.

In 1980, Bausch suffered the death of Rolf Borzik, her stage designer and life partner. Bausch honoured him with a wistful piece, named simply 1980, which many consider her most approachable work. Later that year she met a Chilean professor named Ronald Kay, and in 1981 the couple had a son, Ralf-Salomen. This happy event appears to have catalysed a growing optimism in Bausch's work, and works such as Danzon (1995) and Masurca Fogo (1998) are by Bauschian standards delirious celebrations of life.

Perhaps the archetypal Bausch piece is Nelken, created the year after her son's birth. The stage is covered with pink carnations, through which a near-naked woman wanders, playing an accordion. It is one of the most beautiful images in the dance canon, and if there are security guards with snarling alsatians patrolling the back of the stage, Bausch never promised that everything in the garden was lovely.

• Pina Bausch, choreographer, born 27 July 1940; died 30 June 2009

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Thursday 9 July 2009: The dancer Meryl Tankard is Australian, not American as originally stated.


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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