From birth to death
Poignant work is Pina Bausch’s masterpiece
What happens to a dance company when its visionary founder is no longer holding the reins?
German choreographer Pina Bausch died in 2009, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer. At the time, many in the dance world fretted over the future of her monumental artistic legacy and the survival of Tanztheater Wuppertal, the influential company she launched in 1973. Merce Cunningham, another luminary of contemporary dance, died that same year, but left a crystal clear road map for his company’s continuation. In contrast, Pina’s sudden passing led to a tug of war over her estate and a leadership vacuum at the head of her troupe.
A little more than two years later, those turbulent, uncertain times seem to be well behind Tanztheater Wuppertal. Today the company’s artistic directorship is shared between longtime members Dominique Mercy and Robert Sturm. The company continues to enjoy the support of German local and state governments, and its touring schedule is as busy as it ever was while Pina was still alive.
“The demand for her work has not wavered one iota, on the contrary,” says NAC dance producer Cathy Levy, who has cultivated a close relationship with the company over her 10-year tenure in Ottawa. “It’s a great joy and a privilege that we’ve been able to present them as often as we have.”
Three times in the past decade, in fact. The last time Tanztheater Wuppertal was in Ottawa was in 2007, performing Bausch’s Istanbul-inspired Nefes. On Nov. 25, the company returns for two evenings with her 1995 masterpiece Danzón. Once again, the persuasive Levy has scored a remarkable coup: it will be Wuppertal’s only Canadian appearance this season.
Danzón is about no less ambitious a subject than the journey of human life, from birth to death.
“We had talked about bringing Danzón to Ottawa when (Pina) was still alive,” says Levy. “It’s a delightful, poignant, humorous work.”
One of Danzón’s most famous sections is the exuberant centrepiece solo Bausch choreographed for herself — one of the very rare instances where she danced in one of her own works. The question of who would perform the solo in its creator’s absence was settled with a surprising twist, one for which Bausch no doubt would have given her iconoclastic blessing.
“Pina’s solo will be performed by a male dancer,” Levy explains. “Not only that, but by one of the newest members of the company, who joined just before she died. Pina relied on her senior dancers but she was always bringing in new talent. She was also very interested in the fluidity between male and female. So I think giving her solo to this new, male recruit is a very resonant gesture.”
Levy hopes to continue bringing the company back, citing a long wishlist of works that includes Bausch’s 1975 setting of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and her 1978 Café Müller, choreographed to the music of Henry Purcell.
“The company exists to do Pina’s work,” she says. “When she died, the company already had commitments to 2013. I think they are taking it one chunk at a time, but her repertoire is so rich and varied that it’s feasible they can keep going for a long time. It’s what Pina would have wanted.”
Aida Vainieri of Tanztheater Wuppertal performs in Danzón. The NAC scored a coup by booking the dance company’s only Canadian appearance this season.