Pina Bausch: Tanz for the memory

Posted: Wed Jun 6 2012

Over the next month, devotees of pioneering dancemaker Pina Bausch will be immersing themselves in a ten-show, 29-hour marathon of her work. Ricky Power Sayeed is one of them and he'll be blogging about the experience for Time Out

I felt quite smug when I booked the tickets. Ten productions by the great choreographer Pina Bausch, each inspired by a different city and performed in London over four weeks. But as the season approaches, I wonder if I'll survive a whole month of radical German dance theatre.

It was seven years ago at Sadler's Wells that my love for Bausch began. I sat down to watch 'Palermo Palermo' and found myself staring at a tall brick wall dividing the audience from the stage. The lights went down, I thought I saw the wall sway and then suddenly tons of bricks were raining down, crashing against the boards. Three hours later I left, a new person.

With her bonkers images and radical themes, Bausch has many devotees. One of them is Alistair Spalding, Sadler's Wells's artistic director. He tells how three years ago, not long before Bausch's sudden death at the age of 68, he, the choreographer and Michael Morris, from arts producers Cultural Industry, dreamt up the endurance test that is the World Cities season 'over a dinner filled with red wine'. In the morning at the breakfast table they had their doubts. 'We were staring at each other, thinking: What are we doing?' says Spalding, but there's no stopping it now. Is Spalding up for the ten-show marathon? 'Absolutely!' he says. 'I love that sort of immersion, and these pieces really are the best. Never a moment of boredom. Never.'

In the '50s and '60s, Bausch danced under the legendary Kurt Jooss, who wanted dance to express human emotions and political ideas. But when she started making work with her own company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, Bausch wanted her performers to show their own experiences - including what they thought of the places they toured. In the piece about Santiago de Chile, entitled 'Como el musguito en la piedra, ay si si si', there's a passage in which one performer starts clapping rhythmically. Gradually the others join in. Thusnelda Mercy, who dances with the company, describes the experience that turned into this moment: 'In Chile, the men who care for the beach found this little girl who was lost. And to make the parents aware, they started to clap. And then everyone on the beach started to clap; it was kind of a code! It was a very, very strong image.'

However, it takes time to turn real life into performance. 'We don't go to a place and take a photo,' insists Silvia Farias Heredia, a dancer with the company since 2000. Robert Sturm, the company's co-artistic director, is more poetic. 'It was always filtered in a way,' he says, 'yet Pina wanted to capture these little things, very raw, very pure.' And although Bausch's method was very much her own, it has been passed on. 'We, the company, should make new work,' declares Sturm, 'but it's not about replacing the pieces of Pina.'

As she wove different strands into dream-like performances, Bausch's designer Peter Pabst would conjure up famously ambitious and imaginative sets: a 20-foot mountain of silk flowers for 'Der Fensterputzer', inspired by Hong Kong, or the enormous tail fin of a whale that seems to have plunged under the snow-covered stage of 'Ten Chi', devised after visiting Saitama, Japan. Making this happen is a big job, says Spalding. 'There's the 50 trucks; and there'll be seven dogs, four sheep, four mice, two hens, two turtle doves…'

Hard work for everyone, then, and I'm still a little worried about my own stamina. But Spalding insists that seeing so much of Bausch's work in so little time will highlight its particular sense of repetition, 'where you get a movement passage or incident happening, and then again much later. It's a little trick she plays.' 'Bamboo Blues', created after a residency in Kolkata, features an almost eternal series of different solos. Like Bausch's career, it's repetitive but ever changing. And always extraordinary.

'It was an absolute schism when Pina started,' says Spalding. 'I'm not sure anyone is making work that's as revolutionary now.' But this summer's season is 'much more romantic and positive about life, much more choreographic,' he says. 'And the last piece [she made] is one of the best.' It's the one with the clapping; Bausch died a fortnight after its premiere. Looking up at her portrait, which hangs in his office, Spalding sighs. 'It's quite apt that it was her last piece, somehow. It felt a very calm and peaceful way to finish.' But for me, and legion of Bausch's London fans, this is just the beginning.

Read Ricky's blog as he watches every show in the season