Thursday, December 3, 2009

Political Bodies

"I'm not interested in how people move; I'm interested in what makes them move." - Pina Bausch

Bausch’s work continually delivers messages about societal conventions and human behavior (especially in regard to gender roles); it’s so raw and timeless, that it is certainly worthy of extensive analysis outside of the dance and theatre world. David W. Price, Ph.D., of Emory University describes Bausch’s tanztheater as a performance art that “reveals the body as the site of a social inscription – the body on which the writing of the politics of gender reveals itself in performative acts” (323). Her “dialectical examination” of the body as a political and social entity registers with much of the material I researched for a previous gender studies class. Societal conventions become so ingrained in us that it can become very hard to detect what is nature and what is nurture (ex: children's toys; Why is it assumed that young girls have a predisposition to Barbie, and young boys to G.I. Joe?).

Bausch examines these conventions and obscures them into movement and expression for her dance theatre. An excellent example of this is Bausch’s 1978 work, Café Müller. This piece is about inadequate and inept attempts between men and women to establish relationships. It takes place in a

Man and woman succumbing to societal conventions.

café, but the maze of tables and chairs on the stage seem to represent more than just a place to eat. Bausch has obscured and abstracted this relatable, seemingly neutral situation in a way that shows how social structures inhibit and alienate individuals (specifically their movement and development). Bausch expands on the dichotomy and estrangement between the sexes by having women adopt schizoid behaviors, indicative of isolation, despair, and mental illness. This raises the question, why is it necessary, or even acceptable, for women to disfigure themselves in order to participate in society?

The questions that arise from Bausch’s work are endless. Her tanztheater has no resolution, so it causes her audience to think and reevaluate what they thought they already knew. Of course, there is always resistance to work as radical as hers; one review suggested that Café Müller be called “six go bonkers in an eaterie.” Interestingly enough, this same review praised her rendition of The Rite of Spring as "compelling" and "one of the best". Vaslav Nijinsky's original choreography for the Ballets Russes in 1913 met a large amount of resistance and even riotous behavior due to its shocking departure from all previous ballet choreography. Isn't it interesting how Rite has now become the classic against which contemporary artists are being compared?

The Rite of Spring (1975)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Pina Bausch is best known for her work in the Tanztheater genre. Tanztheater can be defined as:

“[…] the union of genuine dance and theatrical methods of stage performance, creating a new, unique dance form (especially in Germany), which, in contrast to classical ballet, distinguishes itself through an intended reference to reality” (International Dictionary of Modern Dance).

Tanztheater traces its roots back to the German modern dance tradition and Rudolf von Laban; he used expressive dance movement to unite all forms of art media and “achieve an all-embracing, radical change in humankind” (International Dictionary of Modern Dance). Bausch was hugely responsible for expanding and maintaining the presence of Tanztheater in the international dance world. Her unique employment of Tanztheater as a tool of multifarious political commentary has fascinated and baffled dance and theater critics alike. I found it particularly interesting how Bausch made the human body the focal point of her work, and then how it inherently transcends many of society’s dichotomies – dance/theater, male/female, radical/ materialist, etc.

Mechthild Grossmann of
Tanztheater Wuppertal in Ten Chi.

Friday, November 20, 2009

From Ballet to the Abstract

A clear example of Bausch's traditional, clean work early in her career.

Three prominent political and cultural events occurred during the lifetime of Pina Bausch:
  1. The postwar ballet renaissance
  2. An increase in political and social activism
  3. The reunification of Germany
Post World War II, Germany was divided into East and West republics. This reconstruction of the country and its society instigated a “ballet boom” like Germany had never seen before. This return to classical, academic ballet halted the growth of expressive, contemporary dance in West Germany, which could explain Bausch’s classical training and early work as a choreographer. In the late 1960s, there was a cultural shift toward increased political activism and awareness. After this shift, Bausch abandoned her conventional methods and began exploring the use of social commentary and dance theatre. Finally, in 1990, Bausch lived to see the reunification of Germany, which led to great civil unrest.

This abstracted image of her later work conveys her departure from conventional dance.

Friday, November 13, 2009

In the Melting Pot

Upon researching the lineage of Pina Bausch, this is what I have found:

Pina Bausch was born in Solingen, Germany during World War II. She began dancing at a young age and when she was fifteen she left home to study with Kurt Jooss at the Folkwang School in Essen. Then, in 1960, she attended the Juilliard School on scholarship and studied with many incredibly influential
dancers and choreographers, including Antony Tudor, José Limón, and Paul Taylor. While in New York City, she was able to fully absorb the elements of modern dance with the Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer Dance Company, the New American Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company. In 1962, Bausch returned to Germany to dance as a soloist in Jooss’ company, Folkwang Ballett Company. She assisted Jooss on many pieces and began choreographing her own, until she succeeded Jooss as artistic director in 1969. Then, in 1972, she started as the artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet (now known as Tanztheater Wuppertal).

As we can see, Bausch's training came from a melting pot of great dancers and choreographers from all over the world. More insights into how this (along with societal changes/cultural factors) may have influenced her work will come in later posts.

Bausch teaching at a conference for "Nelken"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Changing the Landscape of Dance

Bausch has been reviewed many times in many different publications during her choreographic career; and when it comes to her work, they all seem to agree on one thing: it's unique, and it's visionary. One New York Times article described her as "the most deliberately vague of artists"

Photograph from Bausch's 1982 piece, Nelken (Carnations).

and most of her works as deliberately incoherent "dreamscapes". Another scholarly article
described her company as "gestural and verbal, using sounds, silence, volume, rhythms, music, space and light to create an original stage form and give life to her aggressively realistic vision of contemporary society". She was a leading figure in the dance and theater world, and I believe it was the combination of these two that made her work so unique. She collaborated with designers Peter Pabst and Rolf Borzik to make every piece a "monumental visual metaphor" (Dance Magazine, 2009). She has forever changed the landscape of dance and obliterated the boundaries of performance art.

Phillipine "Pina" Bausch

Phillipine "Pina" Bausch was a German dancer and choreographer, as well as the director of her own company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. I am interested in Pina Bausch because her work is fascinatingly eclectic. Upon typing her name into a video search engine, I found pieces that are traditional, clean, and set to classical music (i.e. Orpheus and Eurydice); as well as pieces that are abstract, evocative, and galvanizing (i.e. Café Müller). But, no matter what video I watched, I could feel the complete investment, devotion, and conviction from her dancers. I would like to research more about her lineage to find out with whom and where she trained that might have influenced her eclectic repertoire.

Ms. Bausch unfortunately passed away in June of this year; click here for a riveting review of her life and her company.