Pina Bausch – How she changed ‘dance’ forever

Pina Bausch and her influence on dance today


In this essay I will be discussing Pina Bausch’s influence on the evolution of Dance. Bausch is known as one of the most influential practitioners in not only dance, but theatre and film too.


Born in Germany during the second world war, Bausch was brought up in her mother’s cafe, playing under tables, entertaining the customers and above all watching what drives people which she would then go on to recreate in Cafe Muller. Cafe Muller consists of bursts of violence followed by long stillness. The dancers running from one side of the stage is systematically repeated, some with growing desperation but often not. Lasting thirty-five minutes, the dance is an has an ongoing sense of panic and disorganization, perfectly representing her childhood in her mother’s cafe. The set composed of black chairs and tables, presumably in a similar layout to her her mother’s, inside four walls which are also black. The stage design sets the piece off feeling eerie and slightly sinister, this memory of Pina’s is not portrayed as a particularly good one. The dance begins with a female dancer with her back toward the audience creating the initial accompaniment by scraping the furniture on the floor, enhancing the eerie and cold atmosphere. Upstage-right there’s a turning door, which gives the feeling of fear of the unknown and anticipation as to who will appear and when, almost like russian Roulette. Eventually her ‘mother’ appears in a ginger, tightly-curled wig and begins teetering around in an anxious manner in a long black coat and black kitten heels. The soundtrack begins and a few female dancers in pink dresses and men in suits appear and move slowly, almost in grief. “So it was a strong relationship in which anything can happen, from misunderstandings, to falling in love with other people, or losing work, all these sorts of things that maybe I didn’t understand, because I was little.” Bausch explains, confirming the visuals we get from her choreography are from the eyes of a disoriented child not being able to understand the chaos, which is exactly the feeling we get as an audience. But I was growing up in this kind of atmosphere.As the piece moves on to the same accompaniment (woman singing in opera), the dancers continue to slowly interact in what seems to be movements driven by despair as they cradle and comfort each other. The accompaniment comes to an end as the ‘mother’ begins tottering around again and whilst the two male dancers are still cradling and interacting slowly with the female. The dance continues on to be a frenzy of perfectly timed choreography filled with desperation and repetition. Bausch’s most used device is repetition and this is clear in Cafes Muller, “Repetition is not repetition, … The same action makes you feel something completely different by the end”. Over and over again the ‘mother’ runs around to different spots in the room, seemingly anxious, the stop, look, and continue to totter. Meanwhile chairs are being thrown to prevent frantic dancers running into them and a topless woman sits with her back to her audience at upstage. The whole piece projects the panic and despair of the time period she grew up in, war and loss were the main themes. The piece look random and panicked, devised over hours and hours of experimentation. The chaotic piece is choreographed to perfection and the typical style of Pina Bausch is evident, no forced interpretation, she leaves that up to us. The feeling of her childhood is often recognised throughout Bausch’s pieces; people come and go, and often yearn for happiness and fulfillment. Pina Bausch managed to capture her early experience of the war at the time; reflected in the pieces, in rushes of panic and a fear of an unknown danger, alongside her strong feminist views. All in all, Bausch’s style was intense. The audienced were no longer spectators allowed to sit on the fence and observe, they were part of the creation and artistry no matter how uncomfortable they felt. She wanted to see the audience cringing, questioning and analysing her work and capture natural reactions to some obscure and sometimes absurd creations. “The boundary between the dancers and the audience altered. The audience were no longer bystanders and able to comfortably enjoy the show, Bausch demanded her viewers to form an opinion by confronting them with works that “can dig like no other into the deepest, darkest and most artfully concealed corners of the human psyche” (programme notes, Two Cigarettes in the Dark, Monahan 2013, 11).


Bausch began studying at the age of 14 under the supervision and training of Kurt Jooss, the choreographer of The Green Table (1932). The Green Table is a symbolic piece of choreography known mostly for freeing the shackles of modern ballet. The set of The Green Table is literally just a green table, centre stage, surrounded by men of all heights in aging-men’s masks and matching white gloves, which I think represents the ‘purity’ and ‘innocence’ of the decision-makers, they want to keep their hands clean when deciding to kill (realistically they have blood on their hands). The masks looked almost distorted as if they’ve been melted and this is the first indication that the piece is referring the distorted view of war that was dominating America at the time. The masks also represent a sentiment similar to the gloves, without identification a human feels irresponsible for their actions. The piece begins with upbeat and jovial music, composed by Fritz Cohen, causing immediate juxtaposition to the sad truth of the piece. Where Kurt Joss’s choreographies are much more technical than Bausch’s, the similarity of the sense of freedom to interpretation and physical theatre techniques are apparent. The dancers continue to dance around the table, agreeing, than disagreeing and clearly making informed decisions quite flippantly as opposed to the seriousness they should entail. This is recognise as one of the most influential ballet pieces of the twentieth-century. Kurt Jooss ballet expresses the futile, relentless tragedy of the war. Kurt Joss’s choreographies were down to interpretation and his pieces were based on expressionism, a brand new approach in art, dance and literature at the time of his career. The technique employs a system called “eukinetics,” devised by his teacher, Rudolf von Laban. Kurt Jooss is known for ‘Ausdruckstanz’, the expressionist dance that had thrived in pre-war Germany. Joss’ way of working had a massive influence on Pina Bausch as she then went on to create pieces based solely on expression and the inner working of the human mind that would stick in dance and theatre history forever.


Expressionism is a style of artistry whether it be in art, dance, literature or theatre. Basically anything in the creative industry. Expressionism is where the artist seeks the inner emotions of a person as opposed to the external. It’s very much down to interpretation and leaves the audience to make their own judgements on what they take away from the piece. The end of World War II changed the history of art forever. Many European artists had come to America during the 1930s to escape fascist regimes, and warfare had left Europe in tatters. Much of the early expression comes from inner human suffering and the lack of ability to express this through the barrier of language and so expressing your emotions through art and dance became more popular, and accepted. At the time of Pina Bausch’s peak in her career the art world was also experimenting with expressionism, including a man named Georg Baselitz in Germany. “I begin with an idea, but as I work, the picture takes over. Then there is the struggle between the idea I preconceived… and the picture that fights for its own life.” This famous quote from Baselitz shows a similarity between the artist and Pina Bausch in the sense that her approach to choreography was to begin with an idea as the course of the creation took place, the final result would differ very much to the initial concept. Almost unrecognisable. Baselitz work was centred around an attempt to revive the German identity after the destruction of the second world war. His style was mostly gestural abstraction and like Bausch, left it to the viewers to form an opinion and view on the subject being addressed. ‘Heros’, one of Baselitz early works consisted of paintings of distorted men (what can only be assumed as soldiers), wrapped in barbed wire, limbs missing or bent the wrong way and the main theme of the images is the colour red, blood. The images are childlike and abstract yet powerful and intricate. The main painting that stands out to myself is one of a man wrapped around a tree with blood surrounding him and one missing leg, it brings about the question; “Is this what it takes to be a ‘hero’?” which I can only assume what was meant by the title. But then again, who knows? The beauty of expressionism. During Bausch’s peak of her career, Gerog’s work was being exhibited in New York for the first time (1981), by now Gerog was becoming recognised worldwide and in less than a decade his work would be in museums around the world. Gerog has a massive imprint on the world of expressionism and post-modern culture influencing the likes of many who would continue in this style, including Bausch.


After graduating from Folkswang in 1959 Bausch went on to win a three-year scholarship to New York’s Juilliard School. It was Bausch was taught by practitioners such as Louis Horst, Antony Tudor and Paul Taylor and danced alongside Paul Sanasardo and the Danya Feuer Dance Company. Bausch was taken-aback by the city of New York and found her feet quickly. it was not only performing arts together but culture, painting, photography, design”- which she would then go on to integrate between each other, blurring the lines of the creative arts.  Pina Bausch returned to Essen in 1962, and became Jooss new Folkwang Ballet, where she then began to choreograph in 1967. After Jooss departure in 1969, Bausch went on to direct the company until she accepted the directorship of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet in 1973. Despite only ever signing a one year contract, Bausch would now stay here for the rest of her life, and the New York dream was short-lived. “I was always ready to go. It was never meant that I stay here in Wuppertal, It just happened.”. During this time The Judson Dance Theatre company had being forming it’s foundations with the likes of Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. The Judson Dance theatre came about in 1962. It grew from a composition class taught by Robert Dunn, a musician (who had studied with composer) John Cage in a Greenwich Village. The studio had said to be a place for collaboration between artists in various fields with an atmosphere of diversity and freedom. The Judson artists focused on breaking the walls of codified dance and pushed boundaries like they’d never been pushed before. The Judson dancers explored the body (what’s inside, the untrained body, nudity, violent contact, biological themes), use of space and time (2 hour piece, audience come and go). This created the problems of defining dance, what actually is dance if it’s not codified ballet. They acted with a sense of rebellion and refused to stick to codified dance. A lot of the creation of their work was task based using questions to experiment; eg. When 5 dancers go on stage and climb up and down a plank of wood 5 times, what does it look like? Other physical things were used to create such as games, sports, tasks etc. They danced not because of content but context and believed anything can be a dance whether it be politics, feminism, gay rights, non western themes, anti-war. In 1962, alongside Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown came on the scene and joined The Judson Theatre who then went on to create some of the most famous and influential pieces of her time. Trisha Brown’s work is similar to Pina Bausch’s as she has the same ability to create timed and planned havoc on stage making it look natural and unforced. For example “Set and Reset” a dance composed of improvisation that has been developed and adapted yet each performanced looks as improvised as the last. The Judson Theatre influenced postmodernism and therefore influenced Pina Bausch and her works as she explores biological themes and cares greatly of the inner workings of the dancer. ‘in dance walking is enough’- Pina Bausch.


Pina Bausch’s style was hugely influenced by the gender and feminism issues at the time. The second wave of feminism happened during the 1960’s in America before spreading through the western world where domestic violence, reproductive rights and maternity leave were under discussion and being pushed to be altered but the feminists of that time, including Pina Bausch. The male gaze was another concept that influenced Bausch. The male gaze is the way in which the visual arts and literature present women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure. The phrase male gaze was started by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975. Best known for her essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal Screen. She was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, which would then go on to influence Pina Bausch and her works. While Bausch clearly distinguishes men from women in her pieces, she also rejects the social separations of the sexes, (the idea that women behold innate weakness and passivity while men have innate dominance) through her choreography. Many pieces in Bausch’s repertoire portray men and women executing the same movement, in the exact same way, which challenges the idea that males and females are inherently different, and thus must act differently. The second wave of feminism had just ended and Bausch diminished the concept of gender and highlighted the issues that still needed to be addressed. Bausch didn’t care for gender, weight or age and she was interested not in what the dancers looked like, but what they felt inside- “I’m not interested in how people move; I’m interested in what makes them move..”. Bausch showed the raw emotion of man and woman without sympathy or discretion.


In conclusion, Pina Bausch’s influence reaches all corners of the arts world, from Lady Gaga to Rachel Whiteread and Wim Wenders even now in 2017. Pina Bausch challenged stereotyped gender, and caused theatre and dance to merge into one. She inspired companies such as DV8 and other physical theatre groups to partially forget technique and focus on the inner workings of human beings, the more real it could get the better. She took the first step to be rid of codified ballet and enhance people’s confidence in their own expression. In the world of contemporary dance this is as big as it gets. The company she founded in her native Germany, continues to keep Tanztheater Wuppertal up to date through constant evolution, which is undoubtedly what Pina Bausch would have wished. In one of her rare speeches, she said, ‘the questioning never ends, and the search never ends. There is something endless about it, and that is the beautiful thing.’


References 15/03/17 15/03/17 19/03/17


A Critical Introduction – Simon Murray and John Keefe – 20/03/17 –   21/03/17 22/03/17 23/03/17 23/03/17

23/03/17 23/03/17


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