Pina Bausch

A Choreographer Who Redefined Dance Theater

Pina Bausch Source Wikipedia
A scene from a dance performance by the German choreographer, Pina Bausch.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Pina Bausch, a German choreographer, expanded the definition of dance to include other art forms.

  • Facts


    • Pina Bausch, a German choreographer, started working 40 years ago.
    • Her interdisciplinary work included video, theater, and personal stories from her dancers’ lives.
    • Ms. Bausch’s work influenced Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Pedro Almodovár and Wim Wenders.
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At “Roses,” a theater performance for young people about the resistance in the Second World War, the dancers on stage take a theme and express it. “It was played by a Dutch company and was clearly influenced by Pina Bausch,” said Monika Schneider, a teacher who attended the performance.

“I grew up with her pieces,” said Ms. Schneider. “I know them well. This reminded me a lot of the way she works, the way the actors worked around a theme and answered questions with their movements.”

Ms. Bausch was active from the 1960s to 2009. Although she trained as a dancer and worked as a choreographer, some believe that her approach shaped today’s theater.

She integrated different elements from film to song and acting, saying, “Dance isn’t just about ballet or classical forms, there are many more possibilities than people think.”

She coined the genre “tanz theater,” a form of dance that freed classical ballet from its strict forms and created new genres. Her pieces combine popular and classical music and integrate elements from film to cassette recorders to skateboards.


Making a splash: A scene from Vollmond, or Full Moon, a work by Pina Bausch, one of the first choreographers to use water on stage. Source: Tanztheater Wuppertal


Studying dance in New York, she was inspired by the cultural diversity of the city and returned to Germany in 1969 to lead the Folkwang Theater in Wuppertal’s Opera House in an industrial part of northwest Germany.

Many of her performances showcase the human search for happiness and fear of danger, shaped by her early experience of war and helping in her parents’ restaurant.

Ms. Bausch developed a way of exploring themes with her dancers who asked themselves questions and sought to answer these with movement. The dance is developed out of improvisation based on the layers of experience from their personal lives.

These explorations were a journey of discovery “to find answers you didn’t know you had,” Ms. Bausch said, “that are much older and from somewhere else. It reminds us of something we all have in common.”

“I’m less interested in how people move than in what moves them,” Ms. Bausch said.

With her partner Ralf Borzig, she experimented with staging to make new settings for her stories.

“Wiesenland” is a dance is set against a huge grassy backdrop. A woman hangs wash, a man arrives with a suitcase, dips below the clothesline and shoos chickens across the stage.

In “Viktor”, a man rhythmically shovels clods of earth down onto the stage from above.

In “Palermo, Palermo,” a wall collapses during the production.

Her pieces were a radical departure for audiences accustomed to familiar stories and forms of classical ballet. Audiences were hostile, faced with the combination of hard realities, poetic imagery and an invitation to dream.

“I’m less interested in how people move than in what moves them.”

Pina Bausch, Choreographer

The critics hated it. “The music is nice but you can close your eyes,” wrote one.

The dancers were shocked too. “Sometimes there were enormous difficulties, some dancers shouted and moaned at me and said what I was doing was impossible.”

“I never meant to provoke, I just wanted to talk about us,” Ms. Bausch said.

Her dancers told their stories directly to the audience, showing them photographs of their families, chatting with them and pouring out cups of tea. This broke another theater convention by removing the invisible wall of belief separating dancers from the audience.

“I think that what her legacy shaped is theater,” said Sophia New, a lecturer at Berlin’s Inter-University Dance Center and a performance artist. “It changed the way that directors deal with their actors and deal with them as a whole person.”

That changed how performers interact with audiences, talking directly to them.

Ms. Bausch’s work later was prized and played around the world. Artists from Wim Wenders to Peter Sellers, David Bowie to Madonna were inspired by her experimental approach. Mr. Wenders’ film “Pina,” a 3D documentary about the choreographer was nominated for an Oscar in 2012.

And after her death in 2009, the works she developed continue to be played by her dance troupe.

“Everything that influences us in our co-productions and flows into the pieces also belongs to the dance theater. We take it with us everywhere,” Ms. Bausch said.

Although the future of her troupe and of her performance pieces is uncertain, the influence of the German choreographer appears to be unbroken.

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