This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
“I never thought of being a choreographer,” the late Pina Bausch claimed. “The only reason I made [my] pieces was because I wanted to express myself differently and I wanted to dance.” Though it wasn’t a profession that initially crossed her mind, it was certainly one she excelled at—to the point in which she became one of the 20th century’s seminal choreographers. By blending the art of dance with theater, Bausch found a way to express a range of emotions in an authentic way that had yet to be explored. And it changed dance forever.
Born in 1940, Bausch began studying dance at age 15. After five years of schooling in her native Germany, she moved to New York to study at Juilliard, where she trained under dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company, which led to her performing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Though these were impressive feats for any dancer, Bausch left the city after two years, returning to Germany where she would eventually take the reigns as choreographer of the Wuppertal Opera (later renamed the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch).
There is a brutality to her work that subverts our expectations of dance. While professionals are often lauded for having complete control over their bodies, Bausch’s choreography was often portrayed out of control—jerking, filled with emotion, sometimes graceful, sometimes not. It wasn’t so much to undercut the beauty normally associated with dance, but instead to add a deeply human element into it. “I’m not interested in how people move but what moves them,” she has said.
Among her earliest and most famous pieces is Café Müller from 1978. Considered an autobiographical work (her father owned a café in Germany) the dance features six performers who must not only navigate a stage strewn with randomly placed chairs and tables, but they do so with their eyes closed, helping each other avoid the obstacles in their paths while adapting to them. Another one of her iconic pieces, The Rite of Spring, features an equally unusual stage—one that is covered in soil. As the company of dancers swirl and move across the space, their costumes and bodies become dirtier, connecting them to their surroundings in a gritty, visual way. Both works continue to be performed today, with Café Müller even playing a major part in the 2002 Pedro Amodóvar film Talk to Her, which featured Bausch herself.
Bausch’s death in 2009 was swift and unexpected. Passing only days after being diagnosed with cancer, the choreographer (then 68) was still hard at work. In addition to choreographing shows, one of her final projects was to be in collaboration with the experimental German director Wim Wenders. Without her, he turned it into a documentary and tribute to her work, and her legacy, with the 2011 film Pina.
The subject of many films, she has appeared in front of the camera not only for the aforementioned Wenders and Amodóvar, but also for projects by Peter Lindbergh, Federico Fellini, and Chantal Akerman, among others. She has also played muse to Yohji Yamamoto (a naturally pairing, considering her penchant for men’s suits and androgynous clothing). But Bausch’s lasting influence is on the stage. Today, as choreographers continue to explore, invent, and challenge visual expression, we look back at Pina Bausch, whose work continues to feel radically modern.END
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