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November 13, 2018
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A still from the documentary, PINA.

Underneath the agonistic, distraught and often ravishing emotion portrayed by the dancers under Pina Bausch's direction at the Tanztheater Wuppertal, lies the promise of a rewarding outcome - a message with real meaning.

Bausch's choreography is heavily constructed by repetitive movements, used to convey emotion, turmoil and even confusion. A series of movements might be interpreted as a longing for happiness or the haunting fears of childhood, although, it is difficult to imagine until you see it for yourself.

Pina Bausch Choreographer Portrait

Pina Bausch.
Photograph by Wilfried Krueger.

The finished product is born throughout the process of its creation. According to Bausch, the creation process begins as a blank slate and starts out very small, gradually growing bigger until the pieces come together to form a single concept, which is created both conceptually and physically. 

While Bausch's performances are highly expressionistic and rely heavily on the audience to assign meaning to what is being portrayed, some critics find it difficult to conceptualise the morality within her work. For instance, her semi-autobiographical piece Café Müller, is characterised by the use of self-inflicted brutality followed by a desperate embrace between the dancers, recalling early experiences of post-war Germany, a topic which defines much of Bausch's choreography.

Following the death of her closely linked partner, set and costume designer, Rolf Borzik, Bausch released a piece entitled 1980 - A Piece by Pina Bausch, which was criticised by the New York Times as "not profound" following its first performance, due to its startling movement and abstract expression. Nevertheless, its critic, Anna Kisselgoff, noted how "it comes to a beautifully stated and humanist conclusion" that "focuses the better part of its energy on life," despite its underlying message of death. On the other hand, Val Bourne, the artistic force behind the Dance Umbrella Festival, remembers the 1982 season as "euphoric [and] groundbreaking," insisting "no one had seen anything like it."

The strength of Bausch's choreography is supported by sublime and unusual set designs based on impressive dream-like scenarios drawn straight from the imagination. In Viktor, 20-foot tall mud walls surround the dancers; in Arien, the floor is covered in water; in Palermo Palermo, concrete breeze blocks line the back end of the stage. The finished products are a combination of dance, speech, theatrical effects and music.

The moments of brutality are juxtaposed with moments of great tenderness, which help to alleviate the dark thematic veil that headlines nearly all of her work.

Each performance has the unique ability to shock and impress. It is not a question of whether the audience likes it; this appears to be completely irrelevant to the outcome of Bausch's dance theatre. Her art is a mesmerising spectacle in itself, part dream and part reality, making it difficult to fathom which element came first. Moments of brutality are juxtaposed with moments of great tenderness, which help to alleviate the dark thematic veil that headlines nearly all of her work. The performers are so emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of a performance that audiences are left to wonder whether it was a performance at all; the threads of reality become intertwined and dichotomous boundaries are blurred.

Prior to each show, Bausch spent weeks with her designer conceptualising a poetic way to set her stage. From 1973 to 1980, the creative mind behind set design and costumes was Rolf Borzik. Although his choices were often unusual, Borzik used props and materials that were closely related to the everyday while managing to retain a sense of elegance and opulence throughout the creative process, and well into the performance. He also explored the use of natural elements, using water and earth. The use of natural elements enhances the dancer's performance and appears to create a connection between that which is whole and pure, and our humanistic relation to nature.

Following Borzik's death, set designer Peter Pabst was asked by Bausch to take the position of the theatre's set designer, a decision he was not keen on making. Despite his doubts, it was the start of an "exceptionally close artistic and personal relationship" and "symbiotic collaboration" that would last until Bausch's death in 2009. During his time at the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Pabst diligently created six set designs for each piece. His creative direction was akin to Bausch's own ideas; they both agreed on using natural elements, as Borzik had also done, in a way that allowed the dancers to work with the design and incorporate it into their movements. The props had to serve a purpose, if not multiple roles, as the space created was intended to serve autonomous functions and change alongside the performance. Sensuality and poetic cohesion of the set was a top priority for the creative duo.

Vollmond Full Moon Pina Bausch

Vollmond (Full Moon), a piece by Pina Bausch. 
Premiered May 11, 2006, at the Schauspielhaus
in Wuppertal. Photography by
 Jochen Viehoff.

Marion Cito is the current head of costumes, having taken over the artistic direction of Borzik. With an overwhelming sense of humanity establishing itself, according to anothermag.com, as "one of the most defining aspects of a Bausch production," it comes as no surprise that the costumes are designed as a delicate balance between elegance and the mundane, often portraying the dancers as normal people. Although some designs might appear to be non-functional, Cito explained that "each costume must allow for the freedom of movement required for the performance", as well as withstand any natural elements being used on stage. Light sheer fabrics with enough heaviness to hold their shape, yet malleable enough to allow for free movement, are therefore brought together in perfect cohesion in each costume.

The most recent piece from Tanztheater Wuppertal is, quite unfortunately, no longer under the direction of Pina Bausch. Even so, her very daring and committed team of dancers, designers and new artistic directors are closelyaligned with her unique genre of dance theatre, having recently performed ten international co-productions in London as part of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: World Cities 2012. The recent 3-D documentary, PINA, as well as these recent productions, are intended to celebrate the life and achievements of Pina Bausch as a creator and an inspiration. Bausch continuously amazed and bewildered us with her distinctive neo-expressionist productions, and recognised within her work, the universal need for love, intimacy and emotional security.

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