Chore­og­ra­pher Pina Bausch’s legacy looms large at Ade­laide Fes­ti­val, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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