Face to Face: Pina Bausch

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. 

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.


Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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