Meet Pina Bausch, pioneer of the dance theater form

Contemporary dance as we know it today is the result of the experimentation of several art geniuses of the 70s and 80s, who decided to generate a disruption in the established methods of ballet to create a form of dance that was connected in greater measure with the human soul.

One of these rebellious creators was Pina Bausch, a German dancer, choreographer, and director who made a revolution on the methods of dance rehearsal and founded what is now known as the dance theater form, which combines different artistic expressions such as body movements, emotions, sounds, and scenographic elements. Keep reading to meet deeper into one of the main influences for the modern generation of contemporary dancers.

The essentials of the life and career of Pina Bausch

Pina (short of Philippine) was born in Solingen, Dusseldorf, a small town in Germany, in 1940. At that time the Second World War was in full development, so Pina spent much of her childhood without venturing much further than her home and the restaurant that her parents ruled.

It was in that restaurant where Pina saw her first dance classes and discovered her passion. Her parents noticed the talent the girl had for body expression and when Pina turns 15 they enroll her in Flokwang School in Essen, where she starts studying with the German choreographer Kurt Joss.

Thanks to her studies with Joss, Pina acquires the bases of the German expressionist dance, which lies in several principles such as claiming dance as an art in itself and not as a representation of a story, and taking the inside of individuals as the primary material to create the movements, including the darkest facets of humans such as fragility, suffering and helplessness. All this marked the route that Pina decides to take to develop her career.

In 1959 she graduated from her career at the Flokwang School, with only 19 years old, and due to her remarkable talent, she won a scholarship to study dance in New York. So, in 1960 she started studying at the Juilliard School, and she saw classes with the best choreographers of the moment such as Antony Tudor, José Limón, and Herbert Ross. Her teachers guided her to perform at important theaters such as the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the New American Ballet.

It is in 1962 when Pina's career takes an important turn. Her first teacher, Kurt Joss, invites her to be director of her newly founded theater Flokwang Ballet Company, to which Pina gladly agrees, so she returns to Germany. In this theater, which in 1972 inherited from his teacher and renamed as the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, her career begins to mold under her own precepts and methods, and she begins to direct her own works among which is born the revolutionary dance theater.

The Dance Theater Form

When Pina starts directing her own works she demands the dancers to separate from the conventions of classical ballet, and asks them to react freely to the music, to the scenographic elements, and to express a feeling or thought in each movement they make.

At first, Pina's proposal was not well received by the public, so her works were booed and criticized, and for that reason, her dancers protested her methods. This only served to motivate Pina to polish and develop her artistic proposal to achieve greater and better results.

This is how her own method of dance rehearsal through questions is born. Pina asked her dancers a series of seemingly arbitrary questions, like what do usually do at Christmas? Did you ever shit your pants because of fear? How did you feel at this or that moment? And then the dancers had to develop dance movements based on the idea of the answer they gave to the questions, and they had to include facial and verbal expressions, such as phrases and sounds.

With the collaboration of her dancers, the method took shape and the Dance Theater form was perfected. Now it began to be well received by the public and obtained pronounced characteristics that were repeated in all works, such as:

  • Absence of an argument and the conventional sense of progression on stage.
  • Creation of brief episodes of dialogue and action often focused on surreal situations.
  • Relation of the body with itself, with the stage and the garments.
  • Approach to the public and its inclusion in performance.

All this combined with the characteristic that the works were developed from the improvisation of the dancers, turned the Dance Theater into one of the most influential banners of contemporary dance today.

Pina Bausch and her Film career

Pina participated as an actress, choreographer and director in several films throughout her career and several documentaries were made about her achievements in the Tanztheater Wuppertal and in contemporary dance.

Some of the most recognized films in which she worked are: And the Ship Sails On, by Federico Fellini, in which she played the role of Princess Lherimia; Die Klage der Kaiserin, as writer and director; Talk to her by Pedro Almodóvar, in which part of her work Café Müller appears; and like herself in the documentary Pina, by Wim Wenders, during whose filming Pina died, due to an unstated form of cancer attributable to smoking.

The most recognized works

Pina created a total of 26 works under her dance theater form, among which some stand out for having introduced new elements or for having marked a before and after in the style of the author.

The first work she directed was Fritz, in 1974, with music by Wolfgang Hufschmidt. A year later she choreographed Igor Stravinsky's The Consecration of Spring, in which she incorporated warm water to the floor of the stage, an element with which the dancers interacted. In 1978 she created Café Müller, a work that gave greater relevance to human sensibility and melancholy, and which became famous for being the key piece in the plot of the film Talk to her by Pedro Almodóvar. Another interesting proposal was Carnations, born in 1982, in which the stage was composed of a floor of flowers which was also part of the dancers' choreography.

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In summary, Pina Bausch's work was based on the fact that she preferred to express herself in movements rather than in words; since childhood, Pina Bausch "danced her feelings". She used to say "I don't want to know how people move, I just want them to move" and for having followed that ideal, today she is considered by many to be the best choreographer of the 20th century.