Margareta Sörenson*



Dans cet hommage à la grande Pina Bausch, la critique de théâtre et de danse Margareta Sörenson exalte le renouveau du gesamtkunstwerk que la compagnie de l’artiste, Tanztheater Wuppertal, a offert à la scène mondiale. Cet article cite des déclarations de Bausch sur son processus de travail (à partir d’exposés présentés au 7ePrix Europe pour le théâtre en 1999) et évoque plusieurs de ses célèbres créations en danse et en théâtre, notamment Sweet Mambo, Nelken et sa mise en scène parisienne de l’opéra de Gluck Orphée et Eurydice.

All of a sudden she was gone. How many artists could, like Pina Bausch, be considered as the most important person for an art form? Pina Bausch and the works of Tanztheater Wuppertal were of great significance not only for the world of dance and how it developed during the last decades of the 20th century. Pina Bausch and her works were also deeply influential on the performing arts; she redefined the entire artistic landscape of the stage, of dramatic theatre, of cross-over art forms and of dance itself. She created a long row of pieces that were all together caught in a stylised stage picture, a repeated image of the individual observed as a member of a group. After the death of Pina Bausch there is truly a gap, emptiness. On the other hand, she did leave an artistic heritage that has already been frequently used as inspiration and as an jumping-off-point by at least two generations of artists of the stage. It would perhaps be more appropriate to describe the emptiness after Pina Bausch as a new lively space, a scenic place where the notions of dance, theatre or dance-theatre become unimportant. A space of images, movements and a place to live and picture life in fragments of stories, the strong and striking impact of the images at stage, always with subtle remarks on what male, female and body expression might possibly be. Her perspective of the performing arts is like a giant picture book, and it has been read with greatest attention at theatres and of artists of our time. The strict, simple and clear images of the dancers in her company Tanztheater Wuppertal whether they perform on a sharp line or run through sweeping textiles, the high heels, the suits, the hairstyles, the bodies—all of this iconography was born in the time around the millennium shift.

Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor
Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor
Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor
Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor

Pina Bausch was, naturally, also a part of a pattern of historical and contemporary roots, still a leading star for major tendencies within the performing arts in the late 20th century. She was raised and shaped in the world of dance, but when eventually she was internationally awarded for a long and rich artistry, her body of work was recognized for its quality as a “theatre experience” as it was for its essence as “dance.” She had a wide, international audience who longed for her new works to come on tour, not because they primarily fit some preconceived notions of “dance” or “dance-theatre,” but because they were communicating images of our time and for all our senses, questioning the alienated individual man or woman and the loneliness of each and everyone within a group.

In Bausch’s creations, the stage as an overwhelming picture washes over the viewer’s eye, sense, memory, and world of thoughts and imagination. Repetition was both method and message in her works, and one of the last, Sweet Mambo (2008), repeated, once more, the gala dresses, the high heels, the night gowns and the model of typical couples as if cut out of a fashion magazine. A personal and rich language for the stage was performed (it was personal even if the choreography was always worked out together with the group of dancers). As Robert Wilson put it when Pina Bausch was awarded the 7th Europe Theatre Prize in 1999:

What is very impressive about Pina’s work is that it is complete. She’s someone who has developed a theatrical language, and gesture, and light, and stage setting, and movement in poetry and music, in all the arts. It’s a personal vocabulary that is complete.

One of Pina Bausch’s most important contributions to the performing arts is a renewal of the concept of scenography and light design. The idea of a piece of theatre or dance as aGesamtkunstwerk, a total art experience, is not a new one, but it had a renaissance largely due to the performances of Pina Bausch. Answering a direct question in one of the conferences of the Europe Theatre Prize, she herself described the working process for how dance, set design and lights interact and develop:

It’s impossible to think separately of these things. When we start to work on a piece, there isn’t anything, so the set cannot be designed yet. We don’t know about the space. We know in what place we will perform, but everything else is open for discussion. Since we have to start working immediately, and I kind of get a sense of where the work is going, and where it will be, certain realities already are there. They may not be connected yet, but I know where the whole thing is going. Initially, it’s complicated to express what I see, what I want. So Peter Pabst, the set designer, and I start playing around with images before we make a decision. I don’t touch the room; I let things happen how they happen.

Almost romantically this statement describes a method of working in practice, with trials in a collective clearly lead by a choreographer and her purpose. Still in progress, its form is not yet decided and finished, but it is worked out together with the dancers. From the artist’s point of view a productive and reasonable way of working where everyone is given a feeling of freedom and playfulness in a flow of ideas, images, situations out of which the choreographer creates and finally fixes in place the pictures and meaning of a piece.

In the same conversation from 1999, Pina Bausch equally describes the try-out-work and a formula of “we”—she thus confirms the impression of give-and-take between choreographer and dancer in her working process. When it comes to the lighting and light design, she clarifies:

So we don’t decide on the lighting until the last moment. We don’t know what light to put where, so in the beginning, during the course of two nights, we go through all the scenes and only then, maybe, we got an idea. We try to do this carefully, but I also like to see what the dancers are doing. Of course, the lighting is important, but sometimes you have to ask: do you want to see the dancers or do you want to see lighting? So the decision becomes an easy one. We never call in a light designer, though, because I like to let the lighting create itself, according to how the piece evolves. It’s not something extra that we tag on at the end.

Since the break-through of modernism in the late 19th century, the stage seen as an image in interaction with a theatre play, dance or other performing art has been of great importance. A rupture was marked with former stage decorations of the time where the same forest or ballroom was used for totally different purposes. Out of the artist’s perspective the split between the stage image and the piece as a whole might appear artificial. Pina Bausch describes a working process based on intuition and exchange with the dancers and the scenographer where the group works together and towards a shared goal.

The labels may differ in contemporary dance, dance-theatre, performance or even installation, but in this field the creation of the stage as a space of images is of the greatest importance and an interactive part of the totality. It cannot be removed or changed without transforming the whole piece into something else. Hans Thies-Lehmann selects one of the key stone works of Pina Bausch,Nelken, (1982, Carnations) while discussing space in a “post-dramatic” context:

Yet another strategy can be observed in Pina Bausch’s work where the space is an autonomous co-player of the dancers, seemingly marking their dance time by commenting on the physical processes. In Nelken, the field of thousands of carnations is tramped underfoot, even though the dancers initially try to carefully not to tread on the flowers. In this way, the space functions chronometrically. At the same time, it becomes a place of traces: the events remain present in their traces after they have happened and passed, time becomes denser.[2]

Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor
Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor

Three decades ago Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal danced for the first time in France, and Paris became the stage where her pieces were finally included into the landscape of theatre. Since then the notion of “dance-theatre”—or “Tanztheater”—, had one fixed point of reference and that was Pina Bausch. The German word “Tanztheater” reflects the German dance tradition, strong in modernism and with a front figure in the 1930’s as Kurt Jooss. His “theatertanz” was a clear polemic against the abstract dance expressionism as performed by Mary Wigman. The split within the German dance was a political and an aesthetic one. Mary Wigman stayed in Germany throughout World War II where she worked as a dancer and choreographer while Kurt Jooss had to leave for political reasons. When he came back after the war he restarted a school, the Folkwang Hochscule in 1949 in Essen. Pina Bausch, born in 1940, became a solo dancer in Folkwang Ballet before she turned to choreography. Her first piece was In Wind der Zeit (The wind of time) in 1969, and a few years later she became the artistic leader and choreographer of the Wuppertal dance group.

At once European and German, Pina Bausch reminded her audiences of the rich heritage of German modernism, brutally cut off by the Nazi period and World War II. In Sweet Mambo she returns to the German film Blaufuchs from 1938 with close-up sequences of Zarah Leander projected as a backdrop of the piece. Over the stage white curtains billowed in the wind, as in the world of the movies of the 1930’s or 40’s—the curtains blowing, growing, hiding or presenting dancers in action. Why did Bausch choose Zarah Leander, one of the many artists who, for money and fame, kept too close to the Nazi leaders? The audience registers Leander’s face and its classic profile, almost masculine cheek, and sad, sad eyes; in the film she plays the role of a wife betrayed by her husband. Why Zarah? Why Pina? Seven dancing women in evening dress, three men in dark suits, a flow of solos and social dancing where the women often are stopped or hindered by the men. What do the women want? What does Woman want? The imposed question slides away between the silky dresses and their shimmering surfaces, with a kind of smile. The image is beautiful, of course, as ever. Sweet Mambo establishes soon enough a comfortable rhythm of repetition, introducing new elements and little accents of drastic humour—the storytelling by fragments, the heavy impact of the image, the easily blowing wind passing male and female subtle bodily expressions.

Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor
Coffee with Pina Bausch © Lee Yanor

In the Opera of Paris, the repertory includes today Pina Bausch’s version of Gluck’s opera Orphée et Euridice. Created for Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1975, Pina Bausch restudied and recreated it for the Paris opera house herself two decades later. The beauty of the piece is as unearthly as the story told is tragic. Pina Bausch went back to the myth from antiquity and the first and original version by Gluck from 1762 in Vienna. (Willibald Gluck also gave lessons in piano to the very young Marie Antoinette in Austria, who wished the opera to be performed in Paris as well, once her marriage with Louis XVI was a fact. But, the rules of French classicism, insisted in some renewal of the opera and at the premiere in France a happy ending was added! Berlioz’s orchestra arrangement from the late 19thcentury is based on the “happy” version.)

The stage for the Paris Opera shows emptiness and sculptural dead tree branches, twigs and sprigs. In the back the dead Euridice sits dressed in white on a stool that is several meters high as an epitaph in a church. Once again, the spectator is reminded of her powerful influence in the performing arts and theatre in the performing arts of theatre. Pina Bausch trusted the force of images in the imagination of the viewer and painted with minimalist pencils the land of death with women in white dresses and male guards in leather aprons. Heaven and the fields of blessed souls are dominated by female dancers whose dancing bodies give shape forms and formations as profiled as the sculptures of trees. Not only post-modernism but modernism is clearly referred to and associated with Kurt Jooss, one of the masters of story telling by dance. Beautiful and tragic, solemn and classic—no epitaph over Pina Bausch could be more wise and true than this Orphée of hers.

The heritage of Pina Bausch is today under discussion. Is there a possible continuation for Tanztheater Wuppertal when she herself is no longer there to create and re-create? No more this tall, thin, grey-haired lady together with her dancers thanking the audience for the applauses that never seemed to stop. Kontakthof, one of her emblematic pieces from 1978, was recreated for retired dancers in 2000 with Tanztheater Wuppertal, and in 2008 a one-year long working process was performed with 40 school teenagers in Wuppertal. The complex work with Pina Bausch herself, assistants and teenagers was filmed by cultural journalist Anne Linsel, and the result, entitledKontakthof mit Teenagern av 14, is a documentary film that will most probably be broadcasted in the future. According to the reviews of the film in German publications, the interviews with the young girls and boys, dancing in high heels and dark suits, shows how dance-theatre made them realize new aspects of themselves in relation to others—dance theatre helped “widen the individual’s horizon.”

Kontalthof mit Teenagern av 14 © Anne Linsel
Kontalthof mit Teenagern av 14 © Anne Linsel


[2] Hans-Thies Lehman, Postdramatic Theatre. London & New York: Routledge, 2006: 151, 152.


*Margareta Sörenson is a Swedish theatre and dance critic. She has directed the Seminars for young critics for some time and, recently, at the Congress of the IATC in Yerevan (Armenia), she was appointed Vice-President, as well as Director of Colloquia, of that same Association.

Copyright © 2010 Margareta Sörenson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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In memoriam: Pina Bausch, Beautiful and Tragic, Solemn and Classic