Pina Bausch, who directed and choreographed for Germany’s Tanztheater Wuppertal beginning in 1973, died yesterday at the age of 68, just days after being diagnosed with cancer. She was known for coining the term “tanztheater” – dance theatre – and creating a new genre that wove together dance and theatre in both form and content.
I first saw Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal perform in November 2004 at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of an assignment for a dance course I was taking at Barnard. The nearly three-hour performance of Für die Kinder von gestern, heute, und morgen (For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow) moved me to tears, and writing a paper about my experience was both challenging and rewarding. After learning of Bausch’s death yesterday morning, I re-read and reflected on what I wrote back in 2004. What follows are some excerpts from the paper (it was nearly six pages, so I won’t post all of it). This was not meant to be a review of the performance, but rather an analytical piece about what I observed and experienced while watching Bausch’s work. Throughout the paper, I often cited Norbert Servos, author of Pina Bausch: Dance and Emancipation, an article I read before attending the performance.
…With Bausch’s For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, “passive reception is impossible” (Servos 39). Indeed, from the moment I entered the theater and saw the white walls and bright lights, my experience as an active viewer began. The stage didn’t look like a venue for entertainment. The white walls with entryways and moving windowpanes transformed the stage into a large room, a place where the dancers were not just performers, not just entertaining the viewer, but also sharing their stories and experiences. “While dance theatre is recounting the universal history of the body, it is also always telling something of the actual life story of the people on the stage” (Servos 42). The stage’s transformation from entertainment space to “real” space immensely contributed to the actual life stories of the dancers, and the ability to relate to them.
…“Dance theatre does not anesthetize the senses. It sharpens them for that which ‘really is’” (Servos 41-42). One of the most prominent senses I used in viewing Bausch’s piece was touch. Although I did not literally touch anything on stage, I could feel the necessity for the sense of touch. Unlike in other productions, where props are often on stage to add to the aesthetic value of the performance, the props in Bausch’s piece were integrated into the dancers’ actions and movements. They were critical ingredients for me in experiencing the work. A sand castle, a piñata, and a jump rope – all props that the dancers used to depict child play. When I saw the dancers use them, it stirred my own childhood memories of playing with and rolling around in sand on a beach, hitting a piñata at a friend’s birthday party, or having jump rope contests with my sisters in our backyard. Bausch succeeded here in making her work a “theatre of experience”, a personal experience.
…Servos wrote, “The key [to Bausch’s works of art] lies with the audience, who are asked to question their interest and their own everyday experiences…Dance theatre, with all its physical, mimetic, and gestural possibilities, again sets theatre in motion as a communication of the senses” (Servos 38). I am certain that if I were to see For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow again, I would have a completely different experience from when I saw it last Saturday evening. Likewise, the dancers probably have different experiences each time they perform the piece. This is the beauty of “theatre of experience”, a living and breathing experience that continually evolves and changes.