Former New Yorker scribe Arlene Croce once famously accused choreographer Pina Bausch of perpetrating a “pornography of pain.” If that’s true, legions of adoring fans haven’t minded—nor have a generation of artists (Bill T. Jones, Robert Wilson and Pedro Almodóvar among them), who have felt the powerful influence of her raw, expressionistic approach to themes of loss, alienation and disconnect. In fact, Bausch commands a cult following rivaled by few others in the dance world. A sociologist as much as a choreographer, she has a knack for depicting the messiness of human relationships—the way passion can shade into violence, tenderness into cruelty—that has won her adoration wherever her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, performs.
Bausch began her dance training in 1955 at Essen, Germany’s Folkwang School. The director at the time was Kurt Jooss, then the leading figure in German modern dance and a pioneer in the genre-melding style that became known as tanztheater, or “dance theater.” After a stint at The Juilliard School, where she studied with such greats as Antony Tudor, Bausch returned to Germany and began dancing with Jooss’s Folkwang Ballett, eventually succeeding him as artistic director in 1969. In 1973, she took over the company that now bears her name.
If Bausch’s works weren’t well received initially, that has certainly changed. Mixing dance with other performative elements such as spoken word, song and gymnastics, they often have an appealing element of spectacle, whether it’s thousands of carnations covering the stage or hair-flinging femmes fatales in full-bodied gowns and high heels. But it’s their emotional veracity that strikes a chord with audiences—something Bausch achieves through a unique creative process in which she mines her dancers’ own experiences for movement gestures and phrases. “Do something you’re ashamed of,” or, “Move your favorite body part,” she might instruct them.
In March, the notoriously press-shy choreographer gave an unprecedented demonstration of her approach in San Diego, California, where she accepted the 2007 Kyoto Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Philosophy. Bausch read aloud prompts, then had two of her dancers perform the choreography that grew out of their responses. In a rare phone interview before the presentation, Bausch spoke to DT about why she’s driven to make dances, the consequences of success and what she considers an ideal dance education.
Dance Teacher: When did you begin using your question-and-answer technique and how have you developed it through the years?
Pina Bausch: Once [in 1978], a theater asked me to do a piece about Shakespeare. I chose a Macbeth theme and worked with a few dancers and actors and a singer. I couldn’t work the way I usually work—giving them movement—so I had to find another way. I asked them questions, and through these questions we tried to create something. Each one had different ideas and came from completely different fields.
I [thought], “What an interesting way this is, to have so many individual answers.” Out of all this material we created, I could pick things that I thought were interesting and could be used in the piece. Later on, I did this with my dancers, too—giving questions and coming up with movement phrases. I found it such an unbelievable way of finding things.
DT: Before you begin this process, do you start with a general idea or a particular piece of music?
PB: At the very beginning, I choose pieces like Sacre du Printemps, which already have a story and complete music. But later on, because of these questions, and all my very individual dancers, I want to find something for all of them, not just solos and group parts.
I think about what we all feel, what we are missing. There’s some vague feeling but it’s very difficult to say with words; I know what I’m looking for, but the picture doesn’t exist. It’s like a puzzle—you have to find things, and you know when you find something that it really belongs.
The co-productions always have something to do with certain countries or cities. In Italy, we are busy with the whole culture of Italy or certain people you meet or normal life, or whatever. But otherwise, it’s just—life is there, and we are there. And that’s it. I try to make visible what we all feel. It’s interesting: what moves all of us, what moves you. I feel like everybody is included; it’s something to find what we all share.
DT: Because your process is so personal, what are you looking for in dancers?
PB: Well, of course I would like to find wonderful dancers, but besides this, I think their personality is very important. What is so special about them? I’m also always looking for something I don’t know yet. I like very much to find out together, to trust each other and to come to something they also didn’t know they had inside.
They know that I see them all very individually, and that they all have to bring themselves in. I’m not only using them; they are also, in a way, creative. And I think they like the experience of talking about all kinds of things.
DT: What effect, if any, has success had on your creative process or how you run your company?
PB: Of course, it’s very beautiful. We are so lucky to have the chance to see many different countries and meet people and share things with them, and have a lot of friends all over the world. It’s fantastic. On the other hand, it’s weekly, daily work. We are so busy and we have to work so much on this repertory, because we perform many, many different pieces in one year. Each evening is important. So we have no time to rest on something like the spoils of success. It doesn’t help us; tomorrow is already another performance.
DT: You’ve said that choreographing can be a torturous, frustrating process, with real highs and lows. Why do you do it?
PB: Because I would like to express what I really feel, what I know, but that has nothing to do with words. And, of course, it’s very hard, because you have nothing to hold on to, and everything you have done is done, so you have to always go further, or another way. On the way, you feel like you didn’t reach what you would like to, and you kind of fight for it, so it’s a very heavy process. We have a lot of fun, but you really go through everything. It’s a hard thing, and many times I’ve thought, “That will be the last piece,” but as soon as we première it, I’m already thinking about the other ones. So it brings me forward all the time, and the wish to do it is much stronger than the wish to stop.
DT: How do you feel when you sit in the audience and watch the première of one of your works?
PB: I’m terribly nervous, of course. You don’t even have a chance before that to really see what you have done. You see it for the first time, and you also see it with different eyes. It’s a very important moment. In the next performance, you try changing a few things or maybe exchanging music or even putting parts in another place. We always continue working on a piece after the première. Sometimes it goes very quick, and sometimes I work quite a long time on it. The première is not the end of the process.
DT: You don’t dance in very many of your own pieces anymore. Why is that?
PB: Well, I would love to dance in many pieces, but there is no time for me.
DT: What is the difference between being onstage yourself and setting work on others?
PB: If you’re onstage, everything else is gone. As a director you have to think about a lot of things, so it’s a completely different feeling. I have so many dances, and they all have such different qualities and different kinds of music. When you do a piece, there isn’t anything before. There is no music, there is no set, no group. In quite a short time, everything has to come together. And you need to be very, very sensitive, very open and very fragile to feel what is wrong, what is right, and bring it into an order.
DT: You’ve studied dance all over the world. How would you compare dance education in Europe and the U.S., and how do you think they have changed?
PB: At Juilliard, they had the performing arts all together, but in Germany, they had the fine arts as well. It was all under one roof, and it gave [me] a wide spectrum of inspiration and [opportunities for] working together. This was very important for me. I had to learn classical ballet, different kinds of modern and many types of European [folk dance], and there were always guest teachers from the States, like Lucas Hoving, Walter Nicks or Antony Tudor. I wish people could have this experience today, I must say.