Edinburgh International Festival 2014: 10 things you should know about Pina Bausch

This article is from 2014

10 Things You Should Know about Pina Bausch

Sweet Mambo, one of the final pieces by the late choreographer, will be performed at this year's EIF

One of the legendary choreographer’s final pieces of work, Sweet Mambo, comes to Edinburgh at the end of August. Colin Robertson offers an introduction to the fearless dancer’s work

1. Critics weren’t always her biggest fans

Today Pina Bausch is recognised as one of the most influential choreographers in contemporary dance but it wasn’t always that way. Critics were divided when her work was first unleashed. It was seen as being too ugly to be called dance, needlessly repetitive, and perhaps most scathing of all was the New Yorker’s dance critic Arlene Croce’s denouncement of it as ‘theatre of dejection’ and ‘pornography of pain’.

2.Growing up with parents who owned a restaurant inspired her seminal Cafe Muller

Born in Solingen, Germany, known as the ‘city of blades’ for its heavy manufacturing industry of swords, knives and razors, Bausch was the youngest of three children, and her siblings were ten years older than her. She would often find herself spending a great deal of time in her parents’ restaurant, amusing herself by gazing at the customers who walked in, running the gamut of emotions from pleasure to pain, tenderness to bad tempers. She would fill in the blanks and create back stories relating to their lives. It’s these memories which inspired her seminal work Cafe Muller.

3. She was influenced by time spent in the States

When she was 18, Bausch won a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. Arriving in 1960, she studied under esteemed choreographers such as Jose Limon and Paul Taylor. She returned to her native Germany in 1962, but she credits this brief time as being a formative period of her life. This is evidenced throughout her career in the use of multimedia and her fondness of breaking the fourth wall; two things that she arguably picked up from her experience in NYC during the experimental early 60s.

4. Her early works courted controversy

Bausch’s earlier works were often brutal in their rawness and were extremely direct. As such, they would often provoke strong reactions from the audience, who would sometimes simply walk out in horror, or hurl objects at the stage. ‘My first production Fritz was considered outlandish.’ Bausch said in an interview with Indian dance critic Sunil Kothari: ‘There was disbelief and also open hostility, and you will not believe, people threw oranges, banged the doors. My dancers from the audience came on stage, picked up a bucket of water and when a dancer ducked her head, water spilled over the audience... this was all shocking for the audience.’

5. She pushed her dancers to extraordinary lengths

‘Pina? You work for her… I think it’s like joining a cult.’ Sylvie Guillem, the revered French ballerina, said about Bausch, who not only shocked audiences but also those in the wider dance community by the formidable workload she put on her dancers. She often pushed them to gruelling lengths during her shows, with the aim that they would be completely immersed in the experience, ending up emotionally and physically spent. However, many of those on the inside were happy to oblige. One of her former dancers, Jo Ann Endicott, remarked: ‘You meet Pina, you fall in love.’

6. She took up dancing because she was scared to speak

Throughout her life, Bausch was an intensely private figure. Her personality in private was noted for being at odds with her work; gentle, soft-spoken and sensitive, compared to the obsessive, acerbic and insolent. Speaking about how she felt going to dance class for the first time as a young girl, she admitted: ‘I loved to dance because I was scared to speak. When I was moving, I could feel.’

7. She was in a Fellini movie...

Playing the part of a blind Duchess, she appeared in Fellini’s 1982 film And the Ship Sails On.

8. … and her work plays a key part in an Almodóvar film too

She also appeared in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk To Her. The Spanish director used Bausch and her company’s performance of the Cafe Muller ballet to frame the narrative and communicate the ambivalence which the protagonists feel.

9. She influenced Bowie and St Vincent

It’s not just in the dance arena where Bausch’s influence can be felt. David Bowie had her in mind when designing his elaborate and expansive Glass Spider Tour in 1987, and ethereal avant-pop chanteuse St Vincent admitted that the choreography on her recent tour, and subsequent Saturday Night Live performance, were heavily influenced by Bausch’s work, saying: ‘There's some choreography that I’m doing in my show – and when I say choreography, I mean basically me bastardizing Pina Bausch.’

10.She brought a 'hippo' on stage...

Bausch often kept her cards close to her chest when talking to the press. As a result, there were numerous stories which circulated about her which ranged from the fantastical to farcical. Among the most bizarre was that she brought a live hippo onstage during the run of Arien in New York in 1985. Bausch wanted a hippo for the piece to stomp around the stage, representing the existential futility of love; sometimes a relationship between a man and a woman feels as impossible as one between a woman and a hippo. However, it wasn’t in fact a live hippo. It was actually just two men in a hippo’s clothing

Sweet Mambo, Playhouse, 23–25 Aug, 7.30pm, 473 2000.

Sweet Mambo

  • 4 stars

Pina Bausch's piece of dance theatre about the relationship between the sexes.