Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pina Bausch and the "Out of the Blue"

Pina Bausch got under my skin from the moment I caught a glimpse of her on a television screen at Avignon Theatre Festival in July 1991. As I peered over the shoulders of young theatre practitioners from all over the world in a school-turned-summer-camp, her choreography exerted its magic power through that tiny screen. The haunting, somnambulistic, human spectres throwing themselves against the walls of a deserted cafe; into tables and chairs; against each other - needing each other, dropping each other, being dropped; a big man valiantly trying to push tables and chairs aside to make way for the kamikaze couple at its centre; another hesitant woman surveying the space surreptitiously and escaping out a revolving door, and then Pina Bausch herself - bathed in the melancholia of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I guess it activated some part of me that had never been addressed so directly before. What was this strange, dream-like language that seeped into my psyche at such a deep non-verbal level? Little did I know that getting to the bottom of that would preoccupy the next six years of my life (more or less), bring me on a great adventure, and set me on the path of writing about contemporary dance.

Later that evening I met Bruce Myers, the longtime Peter Brook actor who was to feature in the MA thesis I was there researching, on “La Tempete”, and ran this “Pina Bausch” past him. He knew her work. “Very strange, and very beautiful”, he said.

Looking back, it’s reassuring to learn that I’m not the only one to have fallen captive to Café Muller. Wim Wenders, for one, is turning it into a 3D film this Autumn (sadly Pina Bausch won’t be in it). Pedro Almodovar, for another, immortalised Café Muller as the pivotal meeting point in his masterpiece “Talk to Her”. (Even if Pina compared seeing her work to the solitary experience of being the first to see a fresh snowfall: “You feel it. It cannot be shared”).

When I returned to Dublin that summer, Pina Bausch continued bugging me. During Dublin theatre festival a misinformed Dutch opera director told me Pina Bausch was Argentinian. I liked the idea of a trip to Argentina. Then the Schiller Theater crew put paid to that notion when they confirmed that she was German. Next stop, the Goethe Institute, where I found “The Art of Training a Goldfish” – the only book in English on Tanztheater Wuppertal. I had a chat there with the wonderful Sigrid Weber, who recommended that I get in touch with Tom Mac Intyre. The hirsute playwright met me in Birchall’s pub one morning, where he enthused about Pina Bausch over an orange juice, and unequivocally encouraged me to go to Wuppertal and see for myself. Another day in Blazing Salads (upstairs in Powerscourt Townhouse), I was waxing on about this Pina Bausch to some friends, when a dancer from Berlin appeared from over my left shoulder, and introduced herself as “Antje Rose”, saying she couldn’t help overhearing the conversation. She, too, urged me to go to Wuppertal to sit in on rehearsals. A friend of hers had done just that.

Seeking out the voice of reason, I went to visit Professor Hugh Ridley of UCD’s German department, who ran an exchange programme with Wuppertal University. Sitting in lotus position (seriously!), he told me I was mad and to forget it. Well, I had no German. I left his office only to bump in to a girl at the UCD bus stop who was in the middle of trying to sublet her boyfriend’s Wuppertal apartment for 6 months so he could be with her in Dublin.

Soon enough I was being picked up at Dusseldorf airport by three kind Wuppertalers, who dropped me back to their friend’s aforementioned apartment, (I was now subletting it), and ordered us in pizza. They would become firm friends. My biggest concern before they left that night was to locate the phonebook.

First thing next morning, I found a listing for Bausch, Pina, and dialled the number. A little voice answered “Ja, hallo?” “Oh hi, I wonder is there a Pina Bausch there?” I enquired. “Yes, it’s me”. “Oh hi! I’m from Dublin, Ireland, and I saw Café Muller on video at Avignon theatre festival, I’m really interested in your work, particularly the dance-theatre pieces, and I wonder is there anything I could look at? All I could find in Dublin was ‘The Art of Training a Goldfish’ – which I photocopied.” “If you are in Dublin, there isn’t much I can do for you” replied Pina Bausch. (Pina Bausch!). “Well actually I’m in Wuppertal. I just arrived last night”. “There is class on in the Opernhaus Ballett Salle at 11am, you can come to that”. Armed with one phrase: “Wo ist die Ballett Salle, bitte?” (I had been listening to Deutsch Direkt tapes for a week or two), I jumped on my first German bus and found my way there, by hook or by crook. Class had already started, and I plonked myself down (very confidently, even though I had never been in a dance studio before), on a nice wooden chair at the wrong side of the room - right in front of the mirror that the roomful of dancers were facing. The charming elderly man who was giving the class (Hans Zulling, an original Ballets Jooss dancer), smiled at me sweetly.

Here were most of the performers I had been looking at in “The Art of Training a Goldfish” zooming past me, their toes nearly skimming my nose as they neared the mirror. At one lightbulb moment I got sense and moved my chair to the back of the room, next to the piano. (It was being played by Pina’s longtime musical collaborator, Mathias Burkert). Much safer there.

As the class wound down, Pina Bausch herself appeared, as if out of the pages of that book, all attired in black. I introduced myself, and thanked her. In the very softly spoken voice I would become accustomed to, she invited me to come to rehearsals in the “Lichtburg”, a former cinema not far from the Opernhaus. The company were training hard to bring her early Dance-Opera’s, Iphigenie auf Tauris, and Orpheus und Eurydike back into the repertoire.

That was the beginning of a sojourn in Wuppertal during which, without any pomp and ceremony, Pina Bausch granted me the immense privilege of attending all the rehearsals, seeing all their shows, and getting to know her entire international company for myself. A whole new world opened up and drew me in. From Brazil, Australia, Switzerland, America, France, Italy, Poland, Spain, Japan, and one or two from Germany - these were the first contemporary dancers I ever met. I was told that there was even one who was on her way back from Ireland (“die Finola” – you might know her).

Sitting at her desk at the top of the Lichtburg with Marion Cito, Pina Bausch was consistently quiet, low-key, thoughtful, dedicated, precise. She didn’t talk much, and she never raised her voice. All of her expression was out there on the rehearsal floor. We would meet occasionally for a chat. We spoke about Ireland, Canada (“all that water”), Wuppertal, her work, and I told her about my evolving plans for registering to do a PhD on her city-pieces at the University of Cologne with Hedwig Muller (co-author of The Art of Training a Goldfish). I was lucky enough to be in the middle of the company as they put Viktor, Palermo Palermo, and Tanzabend 2, 1991 back together in the Lichtburg. It wasn’t until I tagged along on a European tour through Italy and France with Iphigenie auf Tauris that the extent of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s acclaim hit me. It dawned on me that I was at the calm eye of the birthplace of a whole new idiom, by a unique genius who had the power to unleash emotional earthquakes in auditoria across the globe. She was creating work that was like Bikram Yoga of the emotions.

The bright lights, glamour, red carpets, and air-kissing that awaited in Paris, New York and Rome where her often shy dancers were the toast of the town was a sharp contrast to the focused simplicity, discipline, rigour, and space of vulnerability and trust I had been immersed in back in Wuppertal. I could see why they were so happy to get back to the studious quiet of the Lichtburg, the unpretentious Turkish shop next door, and the day-in, day-out glitz-free schedule of work to be done, and scenes to be worked, and re-worked.

Now, suddenly, here we all are across the planet, reeling after Pina’s unexpected death. “A power is gone, which nothing can re-store”. A power, indeed, and also an artist who, at the height of her international acclaim – Germany’s number one cultural export - was still open-spirited enough to randomly answer the phone, listen to the little Irish voice on the other end of the line, and to invite me to class, rehearsals, and into the heart of her company for as long as I needed to be there to get my work done – whatever that might have been. I hadn’t been referred by anybody, or introduced by anybody. I wasn’t attached to any important institution. I was just a genuinely random person who turned up on her doorstep and was curious – dead curious - about her work. In retrospect now I think that’s the kind of openness, love of the unknown, the unplanned je-ne-sais-quoi that the universe might throw at you, and talent for being in the present moment that was at the heart of Pina’s staggering genius. This was the genius that broke all the rules, crossed all the boundaries, accessed all areas of our emotions, gave us “new catharsis”, and changed the face of dance and theatre in our time. Pina Bausch – the world-changing artist who kept her home number in the Wuppertal phone book, answered the phone, listened, and had space in her rehearsal room for what came at her from out of the blue.

Deirdre Mulrooney is author of “Orientalism, Orientation, and the Nomadic Work of Pina Bausch”, Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002.

(This article appears in the "News" Section of

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