Her productions were unforgettable. It might even be just one scene branded on my memory: a woman with closed eyes, running over tables and chairs, again and again, oblivious of the pain.
These were the creations of the great choreographer Pina Bausch, who died on Tuesday at the age of 68 -- people running but never getting anywhere. Repeat offenders desperately hoping for redemption. The obsessed. People from today's world.
The figures in Pina Bausch' dance pieces are driven, tortured and determined. They are -- often literally -- slamming up against a hostile world. But they're depicted with a droll sense of humor and, sometimes, biting irony. In the end, though, there is a heart-warming tenderness. It's a sensibility in the artist that stems from a deep understanding of mankind's shortcomings and fragility.
Pina Bausch has left behind a major oeuvre. She revolutionized dance theater. But it remains to be seen what her exact legacy will be.
In recent times, the creative climate has been one of unbridled narcissim disguised as uncompromising individualism. In such circumstances, Bausch's aesthetics and determination to create socially relevant work somehow seemed anachronistic.
Born in 1940 to a father who tended bar in the western German city of Solingen, Bausch began dancing at a young age. She earned a grant to study at what was then known as the Julliard School of Music in New York and briefly served as a member of the New American Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera before returning to Germany. In 1973, she was made director and choreographer of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, in North Rhine-Westphalia, which now bears her name.
Fragile Happiness Between Men and Women
Her most famous pieces, "Café Müller", "Nelken" and "Kontakthof," tell of the fragile happiness between men and women, the constrictiveness of societal norms and the unfulfilled desire for freedom and self-abandonment.
And, to tell of these things, Bausch developed an entirely new language. Her dancers were also actors and singers. They talked to their audiences; they walked through the rows; they sang songs. Nobody had asked that of their troupe until then. And at the beginning, when it was too much for the audiences, Bausch received hate mail and sharp criticism.
The story of her success is also the story of her determination. And faithfulness -- to her own convictions and to Wuppertal, the provincial town that will always be associated with Bausch, and whose honorary citizen she is.
In recent years, Bausch developed a new working style. With her troupe, she would travel abroad, work on a piece with local artists, take it on tour and bring it back to Wuppertal. The most successful encounter was with India.
Bausch once explained the contradiction between her loyalty to Wuppertal and her performances elsewhere: "I don't like travelling, and I particularly dislike flying. But I like being somewhere else."
She became one of the most successful and consistent exports of German contemporary culture. She was honored and celebrated and, over the course of the year, almost memorialized.
And it's no exaggeration to say that dance theater can now be talked of in terms of before and after Pina Bausch -- before and after the revolution.
Pina Bausch changed dance fundamentally by driving out the last remains of its courtly, representative origins. For her, dance could no longer be just about pretty movements, macho artistry and defying gravity. For her, dance was first and foremost about theater.
Classic ballet was a diversion. Pina Bausch was an irritation, a provocation, a question. Her work reflected a search for artistic truth. And her dancers were the seekers.
Bausch used to ask her dancers how they felt when they were affectionate, angry or sad. How do you move then, she would ask. And together they created pieces that those who had the good fortune to see will never forget.