Presidential Lecture Series
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Pina Bausch

Monday, October 18
7pm, Roble Dance Studio

Pina Bausch

Difficult Dances:

The Choreography of Pina Bausch

by Janice Ross

Photo © Jochen Viehoff

It's difficult to think of another European dance artist who has continued throughout her career to be both as influential and as controversial as the German choreographer Pina Bausch. Although Bausch trained in New York for three years from 1959-62 during her formative phase as a young dancer, her sensibility is firmly European in the visions of a dark, brooding and tension-filled world her theatre depicts.

It is this vision that is the source of enthusiasm for some and controversy for others. Bausch's dance works, many of which are evening- long, offer different vantage points on a compelling yet bleak portrait of humanity. Often what is most vivid in Bausch's dances is the inhumanity of men and women toward each other and the callous indifference of the world that surrounds them. What has irked American dance critics since Bausch made her U.S. debut in June 1984 at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, is not this subject matter of her work so much as her coolly neutral position in regards to the often brutal, aggressive and physically and emotionally cruel episodes in her dances. "She keeps referring us to the act of brutalization and humiliation - to the pornography of pain," said the leading dance critic Arlene Croce in The New Yorker, about Bausch's American debut. "The unsettling thing about Bausch's work, despite its originality and mastery, is that it leaves one unsure of where she stands in the moral spectrum," complained Alan Kriegsman of The Washington Post of the same debut tour.

Ironically, as much as American critics have taken issue with Bausch's dance theatre, practicing artists embrace her - her work is widely emulated by both European and American choreographers and theatre directors. Robert Wilson, Anna Teresa der Keersmacher, Bill T. Jones and Peter Stein are among the leading dance, theatre and opera directors whose aesthetic has been shaped by contact with Bausch's work. In a Pina Bausch dance the invisible divide between the real person and the stage character seems to collapse so that one often has the sense of watching barely mediated real life events. This isn't art rendered as life so much as living rendered as art. In a dance like Café Müller, a vision of the kind of gritty working class cafe Bausch's parents used to run in Germany, physical exchanges are repulsively brutal: A man repeatedly slams a woman into a wall, and she obliges him by doing the same, grabbing him about the waist and hurling him at the wall with such violence that he can only cushion the impact by throwing out his hands and his feet ahead of him at the last minute. Long before British sculptor Damion Hurst was displaying butchered animals preserved in formaldehyde, Bausch was pioneering something close to the dance equivalent - the body under physical and emotional assault suspended in time and space by the framing device of the stage.

Physically, Bausch's dances are highly visual and textural, as much as kinetic spectacles, and this adds to their visceral impact. The weekend before she comes to Stanford, Bausch will perform her 1982 Nelken (Carnations), at U.C. Berkeley, a dance emblematic of Bausch's style. The dance action in Nelken takes place on a stage heaped with thousands of freshly cut pink carnations which get thoroughly trampled over the next two hours. Performed by twenty-one dancers and four professional stunt men, Nelken opens with male dancers in cocktail dresses crawling among the flowers, giggling and playing leapfrog before they are confronted with passport officers and snarling dogs. Later in the dance men sniff onion slices and come up crying and a nearly nude woman carries an accordion, but doesn't play it.

These dream-like visual non-sequiturs are hallmarks of Bausch's work and they rely heavily on the audience to give form and assign meaning to what is seen. This may in part be why viewers like Croce and Kriegsman are so disturbed by the lack of a clear moral position in the work. It may also be why Bausch's choreography seems so paradigmatically post World War II German. Like the performance form of Butoh, which arose in post war Japan, Bausch's Tanztheatre is rawly expressionistic, posing open questions and offering few easy answers about culpability, moral responsibility and humanity's dark side.

Another aspect of Bausch that distresses some American critics is what seems an almost anti-feminist stance at times. Indeed, she often pushes familiar male-female interactions to their extremes, so that they totter on the edge of the humorous and the anguished. An example is a moment in the middle of Café Müller where a man and a woman lock in a desperate embrace, only to be systematically repositioned by a third man so that the woman keeps sliding from her partner's arms and crashing to the floor. This repeats nearly a dozen times (repetition is another favorite Bausch device) until the forlorn couple repeats this brutality on their own in a Pavlovian response of self-inflicted brutality.

Formally, Bausch's theatre also presents challenges. Instead of over control, her dance theatre works seem to showcase disunity and an assemblage of visual and emotional textures. As the New Criterion critic Laura Jacobs once noted: "A Bausch evening, you realize, takes place in those three to four inches between nature and nurture, good and evil and just about any other dichotomy one cares to name. It's a tight crawl space."

In the fifteen years since Bausch's first appearance in Los Angeles, American post modern dance has found its own way into the territory of loss, mortality and pain that initially seemed the almost exclusive province of Bausch. This is because of AIDS and the specter of massive tragedy and sorrow that now haunts dance makers in locales far broader than Germany and Japan. The fact that the rest of the world now has first hand experience with Bausch's vision is a sad, not joyous reality. It does however, invite us to regard her works as prophetic in the way some of the richest and most disquieting art can be.

(Janice Ross is a member of the dance faculty of the Drama Department at Stanford, where she lectures on dance history and criticism.)

By Janice Ross ©1999, Stanford University


Pina Bausch pages created and edited by Mimi Tashiro, Music Bibliographer, Stanford University.

Photo © Jochen Viehoff


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