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Paul Ben-Itzak
Special Focus
Paris, OT (France)

For the children of today and tomorrow - Pina Bausch dead at 68

by Paul Ben-Itzak
July 3, 2009
Paris, OT (France)
"We all need a lot of strength to continue and to do and make positive efforts, and not give up."

— Pina Bausch, speaking at a 2004 press conference at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, Paris

PARIS — "Pina est mort."

The announcement came from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the dauphin announcing that the queen is dead. "She gave so much to dance," said the only living dance artist who even comes close to Pina's orbit in her influence and impact, appearing onstage at the Theatre de la Ville les Abbesses before last night's opening of "Sister," Vincent Dunoyer's duet for himself and De Keersmaeker. Then she threw her arms out in a grand gesture, sighed, and lowered her head.

Pina Bausch, in the view of many the most influential choreographer of her generation, died Tuesday morning at the age of 68, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer, the company whose name she made famous around the world, Tanztheater Wuppertal, announced Tuesday. "Just the Sunday before last she stood on the Wuppertal Opera House stage," the company said in a statement posted on its website. Bausch had entered the hospital last week complaining of fatigue. She never left it. To the world — to the children of today and tomorrow, to cop a phrase from the title of one of her recent creations — she leaves an oeuvre of more than 40 works that introduced a new art form, re-imagining dance as a powerful form of theatrical expression.

"She doesn't just create a show, she creates a form of encounter with the artists," said Gérard Violette, the recently retired longtime director of the Theatre de la Ville, who brought Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal to Paris for 25 consecutive years. (To read a review on the Dance Insider about the most recent visit, click here.) "It's something that comes from the most profound part of herself," Violette told* me Tuesday afternoon. "The artists are not just interpreters, they're themselves. She does so much work with them. It's at the same time painful because she tries to extract all their joy and inspiration. It's not just a 'spectacle' but a full personal rapport with the artists and the public. It's violent, radical on the subject of human nature, on the degradations of our time and its grand problems, always with a large sensibility and much humor. To be at a Pina performance is unique in the world. I've seen thousands of performances around the world, but I've never seen this kind of contact that Pina has between her and the public. One can call it a sort of communion…. With Pina, we are completely concerned. We are in communion, we are completely with her, we're not at a performance. We are in a moment of communion, of exceptional verity… It's never the domain of beauty, it's the domain of truth." And it's a truth which is extracted from the members of her company, who "are really rooted in the soil as if they have emerged from the soil itself."

But it's also a performance, and Bausch is personally invested in every single one. For the 42 works, including 32 French premieres, that Bausch has brought to the Theatre de la Ville over the past 30 years — Paris and this theater have always had a privileged place on her itinerary — she was at every single performance, recalls Violette. "One could see that she was happy when a performance passed well, or sad because it didn't go exactly as she expected."

As for Violette, like much of the international art world — for Pina, he says, "was one of the greatest artists of all genres… She has changed the theater with her notion of time and space" — he is devastated by her sudden disappearance. "It's an immense sorrow that I feel." (Violette's successor, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, echoed this sentiment in a statement released yesterday on behalf of the theater's entire team: "The Theatre de la Ville cries today for a member of its family and a queen of the Art." On Wednesday, the theater announced that it will augment Tanztheater Wuppertal's Paris season November 11 - 28 with a series of lectures, films, guest artist apperances and other events, in addition to the two works being presented, the 2006 "Vollmond" and the 1998 "Masurca Fogo.")

It isn't the first time Pina Bausch has inspired profound emotion in Violette. "When I saw 'The Seven Deadly Sins,' and later Bartok's 'Blue-Beard,' it was the greatest artistic shock of my career," he remembers. "It was something I'd never seen before, at the same time very violent, very personal." Pina Bausch often sends her audience out of the theater in an emotionally wrought state and, indeed, when he left "Blue-Beard," Violette recalls, "I was shattered, disturbed, irritated. She asked me how I found it. I responded that I wanted to hit her in the mouth. She was delighted by my reaction."

This is part of the communion that Bausch intends, a communion which is not about trying to get the audience to feel how she feels, but to provoke them into a feeling that comes from themselves. As she said in an interview with Christopher Bowen, "If I tell what I feel or what I want in a piece, then the people in the audience try to look at it with my eyes. That is why I do not talk about meanings. The audience is part of the creation."

In recent years, the feelings projected and elicited have often been more of bliss and delight, to the point where some long-time Bausch adepts have accused her of losing her edge. "They reproach her by saying that her most recent work is not so 'hard' as before," Violette said, but really, he pointed out, she's just returning the 'amour' she gets from her audiences. "It's true that she receives so much love from the entire world…. She's probably the most admired artist in the world…. It's love she gives back to the public."

Speaking at a 2004 press conference at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt on the occasion of the French premiere of "Nefes" — like many of her works, created during a residency, this one in Istanbul — Bausch explained her recent evolution this way:

"I thought years ago, If I now cannot once smile, I have to give up, I cannot continue. If I can help how you are with other people, to try to keep a balance…. I feel like even difficult decisions should be taken on balance. I don't know if it's better to all blow on the same horn about 'How terrible it is,' or if we need an effort to remind ourselves it could be different.

"I did a lot of things before that were completely different, but that was a different time and I felt the opposite. What we try to do is so little, and I'm happy about any result because it's so little in relation to what you want to say. It's never enough, but maybe that's why I don't stop. The past few years I've still felt like I can't do anything, and yet I still tried. It's so little, and I know. So we just try. We are little people making something small…. I'm like a child — if somebody does something nice or smiles at me, I'm happy…. When we're travelling, sometimes we think how lucky we are — we have so many experiences. I would like to spend my life giving back some of this beauty we have received — that I can only do with my company."

What will happen to that company — her artistic children — is on everybody's minds this week. "I am concerned about the future of the company because she is impregnated in it," said Violette. It's possible to preserve an oeuvre, through notation, video, and/or artists that have danced it. But, as diverting and droll as the toys and the play onstage could be, as vigorous as the dancing and choreography almost always was, Pina Bausch was — WAS? It seems too soon for her to go! — never about these glossy surfaces. If the dance was well-constructed and fiercely executed, the drama and comedy were just a means to communicate something else. How do you pass on an essence which is personal to each audience member? One has only to think of all the misguided Pina Bausch imitations to realize that chez Pina, the histrionics and hysterics, the props and the toys are just a means of transmission for something larger.

And how does one pay tribute in words to an artist whose aesthetic doesn't just come from creative facility but from someplace so deep inside? "I'm not a big talker," Pina Bausch said at the same 2004 press conference. "I do all my things to not talk."

Critics can be big talkers, but contemplating writing this piece earlier this week I found myself cowed by the task. How does one capture in words the essence of an artist who did all her things to not talk? Yes, it's the job of a dance critic to articulate in words what the choreographer has just expressed in movement, certainly important in dance where so many people say (you know the refrain), "I don't understand dance."

So how would I explain why I love Pina Bausch to someone who said they didn't understand dance?

I'd say that after one of my first experiences, seeing her "Danzon" in 1999 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in which we had the rare in recent years privilege of seeing Pina herself dance a solo with those elegant lovely long arms, while standing before a Peter Pabst projection of goldfish swimming in a bowl, I left the theater in an altered state — seeing the world around me differently. Yes, she didn't just give me her perspective, she altered mine. I remember stopping to eat a falafel sandwich near my home in Greenwich Village; a man and two women were talking about getting back at another man by attacking him. As the conversation progressed, they changed their minds. The piece I wrote that night I called "Return to Innocence."

Five years later, leaving that rare 2004 press conference, I crossed the street and walked along the Seine, crossing the bridge to the Ile St. Louis, where I found a granite bench facing Notre Dame. It was a late June early evening. As I wrote then, "a soft wind was blowing, caressing the cheek and making the trees rustle as in a Corot painting. Like the wind, the effects of a Pina Bausch spectacle (or a Pina Bausch press conference, it turns out) may be invisible, but the atmosphere has been altered."

When I reached Gérard Violette earlier this week by telephone, the first thing he said was, "It's affreuse news." Affreuse is defined as 'hideous, horrible, horrid, ghastly" and "dreadful." Without Pina around to inspire our perspective on the world and give us a means for mitigating its terrors and appreciating its joys — using her considerable arsenal of dramatic, choreographic, scenographic, psychologic, humanistic, musical, anthropologic, comedic, tragic, and spiritual tools — today I look at the world, for the children of today and the children of tomorrow, with just a bit more dread.

This article was first published on the Dance Insider. It has been updated for ExploreDance.com. While Paul Ben-Itzak takes sole responsibility for the opinions expressed, additional reporting and research was provided by Marisa C. Hayes, John Scott, and Aimée Ts'ao.

*Our interview was conducted in French, then translated by me based on a less than perfect foundation in the language. Rather than just put Mr. Violette's remarks into an English version, at times I chose to retain the French sentence structure and phrasing. Where this results in any awkward expression, the fault is mine, not Mr. Violette's.
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