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  • Pina Bausch 1940–2009
  • Susan Manning

A Japanese colleague alerted me via email to the passing of Pina Bausch. Her post, dated just after midnight on 1 July, arrived at 10:30 in the morning Chicago time on 30 June, the day of Bausch’s death. Astounded by the news—as were all who heard it that day—I attempted to find out more, but the homepage for her Tanztheater Wuppertal had nothing posted except a brief announcement. So I turned instead to my own memories of seeing Pina Bausch’s company for the first time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in summer 1984 and fall 1985. What remains most powerful is the kinesthetic memory of watching the company, feeling both forced back against my seat and poised on its edge at the same time.

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Pina Bausch. (Photo by Atsushi Iijima, courtesy of Tanztheater Wuppertal)

Those were the seasons when, as Deborah Jowitt recalled in her recent tribute to Bausch, “audiences were mostly thrilled, critics divided.” Rereading the critical debate from a quarter-century ago, I’m struck by the passion with which critics differentiated German dance theatre from American postmodern dance. As Anna Kisselgoff, then critic for the New York Times, summarized the distinction at a symposium held at Goethe House New York in November 1985, “American dance has tended to go in the direction of formalism, and the German dance as we see it is a form of neo-expressionism” (in Daly 1986:49). Although other participants pushed back against this distinction—including Kisselgoff herself when she noted that “emotion is the new word among American choreographers” (49)—no one present that day challenged the assumption that very real differences marked contemporary dance in Germany and the US.

At the time, my own sympathies lay more with the German than with the American critics, for I had recently returned from an extended research trip to the Mary Wigman Archive in West Berlin and found myself in some agreement with Jochen Schmidt, a participant at the Goethe House symposium and then critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German equivalent to the Times, when he said, “I see a lot of younger American choreographers now doing things which classical ballet can do better. They are always trying to become brilliant and fast [...] like hamsters [...] in a wheel [who] go around and around but always remain in the same spot” (49). Engrossed in my research, I was primed to be not so much “thrilled”—Jowitt’s descriptive term—as compelled by my first sustained encounter with Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal. And I certainly wasn’t alone in being moved. As Royd Climenhaga notes in his recent primer on Bausch, he too was in the audience in 1985 and described the sensation of “[feeling] my life [...] being ripped from my own protective cloak, laid bare and strewn across the stage” (2009:31).

Yet, however much my own and others’ responses differed from the published critics’ 25 years ago, I too saw Pina Bausch as engaged in a decidedly German project (see Manning 1986). She was a student of Kurt Jooss, a choreographer who had advocated an integration of the formal clarity of ballet with the expressive dimensions of Ausdruckstanz as formulated by his own teacher Rudolf Laban and by Mary Wigman. In 1927, Jooss founded the dance department at the Folkwang School in Essen, dedicated to what he called Tanztheater, a term he coined to differentiate his vision from the standard fare of opera-house ballet, which he called Theatertanz. [End Page 10] When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they demanded that Jooss dismiss his Jewish composer Fritz Cohen, but he refused and took his company into exile in Great Britain. In 1949, Jooss returned to a now divided Germany and took up his earlier position at the Folkwang School. When he retired in 1968, Pina Bausch, then a leading soloist in his company, replaced him in Essen, and in 1973 she moved the company to Wuppertal, a city just 15 miles away in the gritty Ruhr zone.

From the perspective of Jochen Schmidt and other German critics, Bausch took up...


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