Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch | Dance review

As her company brings a revival of a 1978 work to London, the late choreographer's importance has never been greater – especially in Europe, where her pieces, often traumatic and alienating affairs, revolutionised dance

No one had a greater influence on postwar European dance than the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who died of cancer last June. Since 1973, she had been based in the Westphalian city of Wuppertal, surrounded by a tight-knit troupe of performers who, for more than three decades in some cases, followed wherever her vision led, into ghostly territories of memory and loss (Café Müller), flower-strewn battlefields of human misunderstanding (Nelken), surreal nightmares of murder and rape (Seven Deadly Sins, The Rite of Spring).

Many of these pieces didn't look like dance works, in that there was little "dancing", in the understood sense. Instead, the performers, often dressed as if for some formal event, processed enigmatically across the stage to sentimental tunes, or enacted dream-like scenarios which often involved sexual violence. Central to Bausch's oeuvre was the traumatised interplay of its performers, who often seemed caught in conflicting narratives. There were excruciating spoken confessions, acute physical and emotional self-barings, incontinent litanies of personal detail. Profoundly troubling and occasionally beautiful, this was dance as absolutist experience: the traumatised psyche of middle Europe made flesh.

In the early days, forcing her dancers to more and more extreme degrees of self-revelation, Bausch brought the company close to implosion. In the mid-1970s, she created Come Dance With Me, an exploration of gender stereotypes and sexual violence set to German folk songs. Preparation for the piece left many of the dancers feeling distraught. "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 Australian dancer Meryl Tankard.

Before Bausch, modern dance had taken its lead from America, from George Balanchine and Martha Graham, for whom the expressiveness of the moving body was paramount. Tending to plotlessness and abstraction, their work offered a severe form of joy, and when Bausch's company toured the US in 1984, the tenders of the sacred flame were unimpressed. The Village Voice dismissed her work as "a crock", Alan Kriegsman of the Washington Post wrote of her "specifically Teutonic attraction to the powers of darkness, to an alliance of art, disease and malevolence", while Arlene Croce of the New Yorker described Bausch as "an entrepreneuse who fills theatres with projections of herself and her self-pity".

After an uncertain start – in her first Wuppertal production, the audience threw fruit at the stage and banged the doors – Europeans came to regard her work with awe and respect. With their more dark-accustomed eyes, they were sympathetic to her baroque theatricality and to the brooding sense of the past with which her productions were infused. Bausch's 1975 Rite of Spring, which saw a terrified female victim sacrificed by her tribe on a stage spread with black soil, made a particularly forceful impression. By the end of the piece, the dancers are streaked with sweat and dirt and audibly panting. Never had the war of the sexes been so graphically depicted. "I am terrified of violence, but I wanted to understand the person doing violence," Bausch explained.

Her creative style quickly bled into the landscape and today it's hard to find an avant-garde choreographer whose output doesn't reflect her influence. According to William Forsythe, probably the most important living choreographer: "She has basically reinvented dance." The British choreographer Wayne McGregor acknowledges his debt to her, and there are echoes of her work in the productions of dance-makers as diverse as Alain Platel, Angelin Preljocaj and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.

Recently, I travelled to Wuppertal to see Kontakthof, which Tanztheater Wuppertal are bringing to London. At first sight, the industrial city with its graffiti-streaked streets is an unlikely site for experimental dance-theatre. But it suited Bausch, who admired its toughness and authentic nature. Crucially, it boasts an opera house with a vast stage, capable of accommodating her grand-scale flights of the imagination.

When it first appeared in 1978, Kontakthof showed a dozen men and a dozen women as they prepared for a formal dance, with the action spinning off into surreal flights of fantasy, frustration and regret. When the piece was revived in 2000, however, Bausch decided to up the ante by presenting two different casts. In one, the performers were teenagers, in the other they were over 65 years old. Both casts are coming to the Barbican; I saw the teenagers.

The piece is set in a school hall where the boys, spiky-haired and coltish in suits and ties, face a contingent of girls in pastel satin evening gowns. Hopeful of connection, but unable to effect it, they stalk one another to a soundtrack of schmaltzy 1930s songs. Tentatively they essay the roles and attitudes that seem to be expected of them: the mating rituals and the desperate objectifications of self.

The performers may be teenagers, but they swiftly draw us into the traumatic world that Bausch made her own. Their movements are measured, spectral, purposeful. A young woman has hysterics as the rest of the cast stare resentfully at the audience. A second mimes orgasm, or perhaps agony, as the others applaud. A third borrows money from the audience to operate a mechanical rocking horse, on which she finds a lonely, fleeting pleasure. Love, Bausch seems to be saying, is a sentimental construct: we are hard-wired for conflict and alienation.

As always, the mood is orchestrated with a sure touch. In one sequence, a young cast member named Joy Wonnenberg simply repeats the word "Liebling!" for minutes on end. Whining, pleading, increasingly shrill, she turns from naive teenager to harridan before our eyes. It echoes a chilling earlier moment when the whole cast march on wearing masks of their older selves.

Kontakthof offers a bleak prognosis, but the journey is exhilarating and the cast deliver it with precision. They've been rehearsed by Josephine Ann Endicott, who has performed with Tanztheater Wuppertal since 1973, and enjoyed "a close love-hate relationship" with Bausch. To her dancers, Endicott says, the choreographer was at once devouring mother, spirit guide and addiction. They'd leave the company at intervals, hollowed out by her demands, but they almost always came back. "It was hard, that balance. There was Pina and there was real life… I could never quite get rid of her."

And then, suddenly, she was gone. "We all thought she was one of those people who'd never die," says 59-year-old Dominique Mercy, a founder member of the company. After the initial shock, the dancers turned to Mercy, who agreed to lead the company into the future. For the immediate future, he says, Bausch's works will continue to be performed as scheduled. In the course of time, however, it's probable that the company will acquire new work. "After all, we have to move forward."

For Jan Lade, a 17-year-old who performs in Kontakthof, Bausch's work has been a revelation. "It's so emotional I sometimes start to cry." Like his fellow cast members, he is looking forward to performing in London. "It'll be a change," he says. "In Wuppertal it's always raining."


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Masurca Fogo – review
The choreographer’s piece inspired by Lisbon is sunny and seductive, but ultimately insubstantial

Luke Jennings

12, Feb, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Zoi Dimitriou Company; Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch – review
Concept trumps spectacle in Zoi Dimitriou's SF-inspired You May!, while Hollywood gets the Pina Bausch treatment in the second of her World Cities series. By Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

16, Jun, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Gebirge; Theo Clinkard – review
A nightmare vision from Pina Bausch insinuates and alienates, while Theo Clinkard takes his twisting, looping time to delightful effect

Luke Jennings

19, Apr, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Bon Voyage, Bob review – striving for significance
Tanztheater Wuppertal’s magnificent dancers are let down by Alan Lucien Øyen’s stultifying meditation on loss

Sarah Crompton

03, Mar, 2019 @7:59 AM

Article image
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch; Richard Alston Dance Company – review

Tanztheater Wuppertal deliver more dark ennui, Richard Alston dance sunny side up, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

24, Feb, 2013 @12:05 AM

Article image
maliphantworks3; Cowpuncher My Ass; Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Bluebeard – review
Dana Fouras bows out in style, Holly Blakey delivers a frenzy of self-loathing, and Pina Bausch’s Bluebeard was worth the wait


15, Feb, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Kontakthof; Acosta Danza: 100% Cuban – review
Universal themes of romance connect a young cast to their 70s revival, while Carlos Acosta stumbles in his casting

Sarah Crompton

12, Feb, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch; The Prince of the Pagodas – review
A season of Pina Bausch's later works kicks off with a flash and a foxtrot, while Kenneth MacMillan's princely salamander will always be a plot device too far, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

09, Jun, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Dance review: Pina Bausch Wuppertal Tanztheater / Sadler's Wells, London

This long-sold-out season proves an electrifying experience, finds Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

14, Feb, 2008 @2:59 PM

Article image
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch - review

The range and intensity of her movement here are so remarkable, you have to wonder what other dances Bausch might have gone on to create, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

28, Oct, 2010 @8:31 PM