Choreographer Pina Bausch’s legacy looms large at Adelaide Festival, writes Sharon Verghis
They stretched as far as the eye could see: thousands of bright pink carnations in a rippling tapestry. And then they came, a strange march of the damned, the women in fancy frocks, the men in suits, carrying chairs as they picked their way through this sea of flowers, first carefully, and then carelessly — trampling, crawling, jumping like frogs, barking like dogs.
Like so many of German choreographer Pina Bausch’s works, Nelken shocked audiences with its strange, ugly beauty when it premiered at the Wuppertal Opera House in 1982.
A man in evening dress performed a graceful hand ballet of sign language to a Gershwin classic. Grim guards with leashed alsatians barked orders for passports. A half-naked woman with an accordion drifted with a somnambulist’s gait through the flowers ( nelken is German for carnations). An exhausted dancer screamed at the audience as he pushed his body punishingly through jetes, pirouettes: “What do you want? What do you want?”
Wherever it went, Bausch’s difficult, disjointed dream-piece provoked strong reactions. In Soviet-era Moscow, audiences sat silent, cowed. In Madrid, it caused a riot.
“Yes, there were fights in [the] audience,” says Lutz Forster, artistic director of Tanztheater Wuppertal, Bausch’s seminal dance company, speaking over the phone from Germany. “There were some people who liked it and there were some people who hated it, and even with the couples, I think this piece led to some divorces, so controversial it was.”
It’s a tongue-in-cheek comment, but you get the gist. Nelken, beautiful as it is, is not an easy work. But nothing by Bausch is. What will Australian audiences make of it, then?
Forster, who danced in the work from its premiere until 2012, will be watching keenly when Nelken makes its Australian debut at the Adelaide Festival next month.
It will be Tanztheater Wuppertal’s first visit in 16 years, and its troupe of performers includes a trio of Australians — veteran Julie Shanahan and newcomers Paul White and Michael Carter — among the 23 dancers (and four stuntmen).
Bausch, that chain-smoking, polarising, radical high priestess of modern dance, will be, as always, a strong phantom presence. One of the seminal performance figures of the 20th century, her sudden death in 2009, five days after being diagnosed with cancer, sent shockwaves through the international arts community.
Since then, the company has kept one eye fixed on its charismatic founder, whose singular presence is so deeply embedded in the 40-odd pieces she left behind, and the other on an uncertain future.
It faces the dilemma of identity experienced by so many dance companies — think Nederlands Dans Theater, the Martha Graham Dance Company, The Forsythe Company — when their founders die or leave. How do you safeguard and honour their legacy while embracing new work and expanding repertoires?
Bausch’s unexpected passing sent the company into a tailspin: at the time there was no successor or template for the future. Forster, a member of the company almost since its inception in 1973, was brought in to take over from interim directors Robert Sturm and veteran dancer Dominique Mercy in 2013.
Forster — lanky, avuncular, a David Bowie lookalike with the elegant grace of Fred Astaire when he dances — has kept it on an even keel since, confining himself mainly to augmenting the ageing ensemble with new blood (troupe members range in age from the 20s to the 60s).
In May next year, he’ll pass on the reins to Adolphe Binder, currently artistic director of Sweden’s GöteborgsOperans Danskompani. Binder is keen to throw open the door to new work, saying this month that she sees her role as “a curator who’ll promote new associations, like a dramatic adviser”.
In the meantime, work on the new €2 million ($3m) Pina Bausch Centre, a lavish public tribute to the choreographer, is progressing well in Wuppertal, Forster says.
He sees himself as the company’s accidental head — “I never had the intention to do this” — but to company supporters, his rich cultural memory and long links with Bausch made him the natural choice when the ensemble needed a steadying hand.
Born, like Bausch, in the small town of Solingen, he came to dance late, studying languages and history at Hamburg University before enrolling in the Folkwang Ballet in Essen in his 20s. Bausch, who was director there until 1972, would return for regular visits. He first met her in the cafeteria and remembers being struck by her thick regional accent; he soon discovered they shared the same birthplace.
“She talked like my grandmother and my grand-aunt and I [told her so].” He chuckles. “She didn’t like it so much at first because she wanted to get rid of her accent.”
The public image of Bausch is that of the stern, pale revolutionary who redefined modern dance with brutal, nakedly confessional works that exploded rather than breached convention: dancers being shovelled with dirt, slamming into walls and chairs or talking gibberish, performing on sets flooded with water or filled with peat, dead leaves, waterfalls and 20m mud walls, melding dance, dialogue, song, poetry and design in a radical advancing of Germany’s dance theatre movement.
Hers was a difficult aesthetic, one that shocked and repelled audiences as often as it entranced. But to Forster, Bausch’s towering legend masks the private woman: humble, collegial, “funny, warm. She had an incredible sense of humour, you can see it in pieces like Nelken, or in 1980, the first work we did in Australia, at the Adelaide Festival — that is hilariously funny but also very sad.
“She was very nice to be with, although sometimes it was hard because she had no difference between private life and work — everything she saw and did and felt, everything basically appeared in some kind of piece. She loved looking at people, at everything around her, she was a very great observer, she would go” — he drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper — “‘ Look at that couple over there, look at the way they are together.’ ”
Born on July 27, 1940, Philippine Bausch grew up in humble circumstances. Her parents ran an inn and cafe, and her early memories of watching customers would later shape works such as 1978’s Cafe Muller. She started dance classes at 14 at the Folkwang School in Essen run by Kurt Jooss, one of the founding fathers of German expressionist dance or Ausdruckstanz. Stemming from Germany’s rich pre-war creative scene, it combined movement, music and dramatic elements.
A scholarship to America exposed Bausch to influential dance figures such as Jose Limon, Antony Tudor and George Balanchine. In 1962, she returned to Germany to take up a post as soloist and later director of Jooss’s Folkwang Ballet. In 1973 she was appointed the artistic director of Wuppertal’s Opera Ballet, which was renamed Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.
Forster joined the company in 1975, dancing in Bausch’s famously provocative take on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Bausch had spotted him earlier at the school and asked for him: “That one,” she said. “I want the tall blond one with the big nose … and nice second position.”
He recalls the early years as intense, happy maelstrom centred around the cult of Pina. “Ít was a 24-hour thing, you slept somewhere in between. Those were wonderful years.
“We did Kontakthof, Arien, 1980 — it was when Rolf Borzik [Bausch’s partner and celebrated set and costume designer, who died in 1980] was still alive, and we went to class and then rehearsal and then lunch and then back to rehearsal, then to dinner.”
These convivial nightly get-togethers would stretch out over endless glasses of wine as Bausch finessed ideas and concepts. “And at some point you would have to say, ‘Pina, Pina, I have to be in class at 7am tomorrow’.”
Outside this charmed circle, however, the environment was hostile. Bausch’s anarchic pieces, exploring sexual politics, memory, alien-
Pina Bausch in 2008, above, and a scene from her polarising production of Nelken, right