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Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:11 am
A few hours before Tanztheater Wuppertal is due to take the stage in Paris, the Théâtre de la Ville is quiet, almost melancholy. Behind the curtain, the crew tends to the real grass that covers the stage for 1980 – A Piece by Pina Bausch, trimming it, sprinkling it with water. Real life meets theatre, as in many of Bausch’s works – but the German choreographer is no longer there to oversee them.
Bausch’s sudden death from cancer in 2009, aged 68, took everyone by surprise. The high priestess of Tanztheater, or dance-theatre, had been a revered voice for four decades. She divided opinions fiercely – choreographer William Forsythe called her “a category of dance unto herself”, the FT’s Clement Crisp “tediously predictable” – but artists flocked to Wuppertal, the city in western Germany she called home for 36 years, to work with her. Her yearly creations mined her dancers’ thoughts and feelings in episodic, genre-breaking narratives; emotional trauma, violence, sexual politics played out like uncomfortably raw rituals, blending words, dance and song.
Nearly three years on, her bereaved dancers, talking in an empty lobby at the Théâtre de la Ville, still give the impression of a slightly lost family. “We found ourselves faced with an abyss, an unfathomable sense of emptiness,” says Dominique Mercy, who was a founding member of the company in 1973. “We all thought we would grow old together, be on stage together for years to come.” Julie Anne Stanzak, with Wuppertal for 26 years, concurs: “Every week you hear: ‘We miss Pina, we miss Pina, we miss Pina.’ We miss her eyes, her way of looking at things, her way of speaking to us.”
When Bausch died, the tight-knit company decided to go on performing. Mercy and Robert Sturm, who was Bausch’s assistant for 10 years, were appointed joint artistic directors. “We had never imagined the Tanztheater without Pina.” says Sturm. “It’s impossible to replace her but, suddenly, we had to function.” Instead of putting on a new work every season, the company focused on revivals. In June and July, as part of the London 2012 Festival, it will fulfil the last commitment Bausch made: a festival at Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican, entitled World Cities 2012.
Yet some uncomfortable questions hover over Tanztheater Wuppertal, one of several choreographer-led companies to lose their creative light in recent years. A choreographic legacy is elusive: even where the steps are preserved, intention and nuances can disappear over time. The Martha Graham Dance Company struggled with those issues after its founder’s death in 1991 but has kept going, putting on new work alongside revivals, and the Béjart Ballet Lausanne chose the same path after Maurice Béjart passed away five years ago. Merce Cunningham, who died less than a month after Bausch, had taken a radical stance, making plans for his company to disband after a final two-year tour, which ended last December.
The enigmatic Bausch left no such orders, and preserving the repertoire became the company’s driving goal. The rights to her works fell to her son, Salomon Bausch, who placed them in the newly created Pina Bausch Foundation. A vast archive of material was gathered, including 7,500 video recordings, and an exhaustive catalogue is in the works. The rehearsal process has become a collective affair, with dancers taking on artistic responsibility alongside the directors. “Everybody is committed to continuing as long as we can do it with the same quality,” says Sturm. “The main thing for us is to keep Pina’s works fresh, alive.”
But the specificity of Bausch’s repertoire means major challenges ahead. The Merce Cunningham Trust offers classes in its trademark Cunningham Technique, and licenses works to other companies. But there is no such thing as a “Bausch technique” or curriculum: the German choreographer tailored her works specifically to the personalities who created them.
“We’re all concerned with how to transmit the intent, the essence of it,” Stanzak admits. “You’d think that when we stand on stage it’s just standing but actually it’s not. We have the understanding [of how] to stand there because of what we’ve been through, because we’ve been with Pina.” Sturm remains optimistic about the company’s ability to carry the torch for new dancers, although no dancers have come or gone since Bausch’s death. “It’s a way of thinking. Pina took all the theory out of theatre, all the barriers, there is no distance between the audience and what’s happening on stage. You cannot teach that in school but I think it’s possible to pass it on. You absorb it by being in the company.”
The company’s make-up is unusual in the dance world: Bausch selected dancers of all backgrounds and ages. As Mechthild Grossmann, now 64 and a mainstay of the Tanztheater for more than three decades, puts it: “I will go on as long as my legs will do it, as long as I’m credible in the parts. But it’s not for my generation to move on to new things.”
The question of new work is still something of a taboo. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” Mercy says. “We know it has to happen but it’s too early, we haven’t figured it out yet.” Several dancers admit they yearn to create new work again but no one dares mention choreographers’ names.
The ghost of Bausch hovers below the surface of every conversation: the dancers still occasionally refer to her in the present tense, and their individual relationships with her are as integral to the company as they ever were. “She was a friend, she was a mother, she was a sister,” Stanzak muses.
For now, the Tanztheater is focused on the fragile balance it has achieved, and with around 100 performances each season, 30 in Wuppertal and the rest on tour, there is little time to think. Its latest revival, 1980, received critical plaudits in Paris, prompting Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, the director of the Théâtre de la Ville, to declare, “They show no sign of ageing, of losing their soul.” The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the company’s main sources of funding, has increased its support.
World Cities 2012 is set to celebrate Bausch’s legacy but the discussion continues behind the scenes. “What can come after Pina?” asks Sturm. “After London, we should start to think.”
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