Pina Bausch for ever

Was it thrilling to dance for the late, great Pina Bausch – or terrifying? As the troupe she created heads for Edinburgh, Judith Mackrell asks key members to explain her magic

Even when he was still a dance student, Daphnis Kokkinos knew that Pina Bausch was the only choreographer with whom he wanted to work. He'd seen just two of her productions, yet the poignant absurdities of Café Müller, in which six characters sleepwalk in and out of a cafe, and the demonic savagery of Rite of Spring, in which a sacrificial victim is chosen on a stage covered in thick, dark earth, had shaken him to his core. So as soon as he graduated from the Athens State Academy, Kokkinos headed to Wuppertal – the industrial city in north Germany, where Bausch and her company were based.

"I was on the train for three days," he says. "When I arrived, I hadn't shaved, I'd hardly eaten. I was terrified – I didn't know anyone. But I found my way to Pina's studio, knocked on the door, and said, 'Good morning, I'm Daphnis from Crete.'" Bausch held him in a hug (in so far as her tiny body could envelop a 6ft Greek) and let him stay. Kokkinos has now been dancing with the company for 22 years.

Touching as this story sounds, it's not exceptional. There are dancers from 17 nationalities currently in Bausch's company, and many of them made similar pilgrimages. When the choreographer died last summer, aged 68, those 31 dancers were bereft. Bausch was also mourned around the world by people who'd only ever known her through her work. Since founding her company in 1973, she had developed a style of dance theatre that took audiences into the darkest, strangest crannies of the human psyche. A goofy gag (a man chasing a woman with a toy mouse) or a brutally simple choreographic motif (a couple dashing themselves bruisingly against each other's chests) could feel like a naked revelation of desire, pain or wild, lurching hilarity.

The works led to exhilaration and exhaustion. They were very long, lasting up to three hours; they jumped unsettlingly between dance, theatre and cabaret; and they were performed on stages that reminded you of dreams – carpeted with dead leaves or flowers, or flanked by 20ft walls of mud. For a dedicated core of Bausch fans (some of whom followed her shows around the world), the work became interwoven with their lives. Dominique Mercy, who has danced with the company since its inception, recalls the overwhelming ovation they received after performing in Paris shortly after Bausch's death. "It wasn't just a reaction to the piece, but to the fact that we were carrying on without Pina. It was quite amazing to realise how close people felt to her work."

The issue of how the company would carry on was not a simple one, however. Death came very suddenly to Bausch, just five days after she was diagnosed with cancer, and she'd made no formal plans for the future. Even if Tanztheater Wuppertal (as her company is officially known) was only going to continue as a showcase for the Bausch repertory, without even addressing the issue of presenting other, new work, the loss of her presence would be incalculable.

In some fundamental way, the company believed she held the keys to their soul. When she created new pieces, she always worked intimately with her dancers – drawing on their memories, fears, doubts and longings – and the dancers felt she had almost magical powers in drawing out parts of themselves they didn't recognise. Cristiana Morganti describes how, even when Bausch was simply recasting an existing work, the experience could be revelatory. "She might decide to give the role of a sexy glamorous woman to a very young dancer, and we'd all be thinking, 'She'll never get it, she's just a girl.' But Pina was always right."

The detail and complexity of Bausch's work were such that, whenever a production was revived, it required months of preparation from her. Yet Robert Sturm, who had for 10 years worked alongside Bausch as assistant director, felt they had to find a way of keeping the company going. "Pina fought hard to bring this kind of work to Wuppertal – I know she didn't want it to disappear."

Sturm entered into a partnership with Mercy, who'd danced in most of the repertory during his 36-year career with the company. In many ways, the two men are unalike: Sturm dark, compact, quietly German; Mercy blond, elegant, French, a little wired. But they instinctively felt they could work together. "See, we have no bruises yet," grins Mercy. "We are a good combination," says Sturm more mildly.

They are also getting a profound input from the dancers. Some have been with the company for 20 to 30 years (Bausch enjoyed working with older dancers), but even the younger ones feel a sense of ownership of the material they perform, and want to take on full responsibility for keeping it alive. Sometimes, Mercy admits, this enthusiasm can be a bit much. "We all have different memories, sensitivities and sensibilities about how a work should be performed. But really, it's a beautiful thing. We all have to keep our eyes and our minds open."

Fortunately for the company, the Wuppertal theatre wants to continue its support, providing free use of the town's opera house. And, while the company must still earn 40% of its income through touring, that too seems secure. When I speak to the dancers, they are in Athens – at the start of a packed performance diary that would take them to America, Spain, France, Italy, Brazil, Germany and Hong Kong. They arrive in Edinburgh later this month, where they'll be giving the UK premiere of Agua, one of Bausch's more exuberant works, inspired by the company's three-month residency in Brazil in 2001. It's set against an ecstatic video backdrop of crashing surf and waving palms, and carries a definite Latin frisson, as the classic Bausch parade of funny, absurd and desperate human relationships takes on a certain lazy heat and sensuality.

Watching Agua in Athens, I am surprised by the fact that, while it is full of recognisable Bausch motifs (dancers lining up for a swaggering, quarrelsome beauty parade, or engaged in a quest for affection) some of it proves impossible to follow because so much of the text is spoken in Greek. Words are integral to Bausch's work – dancers tell jokes, exchange confidences, deliver chat-up lines – and she always insisted as much of the text as possible be spoken in the language of the country in which it was performed.

Probably the one thing that dancers such as Kokkinos never considered, as they set off for Wuppertal, was the degree of linguistic competency they would have to acquire. When I ask him and Morganti how many languages they have had to learn, the list is astonishing: Mandarin, Cantonese, Portuguese, Brazilian, Korean, Japanese ("that was very hard," says Kokkinos, "I had to speak three whole pages"), Spanish, Italian, French, German, Dutch, Polish, Russian, English, Turkish, Greek and Hungarian ("that was the worst," says Morganti).

Another aspect of international touring is the different reactions from audiences. Kokkinos says the first time he performed in America he was quite fazed by the fact that people started laughing during moments he considered painful. "It's very different in Japan," Morganti adds. "Everyone is very silent. It's only after a performance, when the lights come up, that we can see some of them are crying."

In Madrid, the dancers even caused a minor riot. "We were dancing Nelken," says Morganti. This is Bausch's evocation of a lost arcadia, in which the carnation-covered stage is patrolled by live guard dogs. "People in the very expensive seats started shouting at us and telling us to get off the stage. Then all the young people, the students, started screaming back. We couldn't understand it. We've performed this work from Mexico to India and never had such a reaction."

Given how busy the company are with touring, there has been no time yet to address the long-term future. Sturm and Mercy know they can't keep the company alive simply by performing the same stock repertory. They have a back catalogue of works that haven't been seen on stage for many years – reviving these will bring an interim period of creativity. "Some of our dancers won't even have seen these pieces on video," says Sturm, "so it will be very exciting, very new, for them."

But Tanztheater Wuppertal will eventually have to start finding new work. There's an irony here: Bausch was so influential they'll be spoilt for choice if they want choreographers like her. But they know how feeble second-hand copies will look. "We have to find something new that's authentic and honest, but also fits organically with what we do," muses Mercy. "If we do something wrong, we always feel a pinch on our back."

"Even though she's not here," says Sturm, "she hasn't gone away."


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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