Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail: email@example.com
German choreographer Pina Bausch in rehearsal
Lifting her arms above her head, choreographer Pina Bausch stood at the edge of the padded black floor in Roble Dance Studio and sketched a sweeping arc in the air.
"The arms surround, they come together, like a curve," she said. "You make a circle. Then, like this."
Moments later, four dancers from her Tanztheater (dance theater) Wuppertal company were churning like windmills, twisting their bodies in graceful, accentuated swirls.
"Yes," Bausch said. "Fantastic".
"Now, the music is like a shock. It has no shape. You listen and you don't know where to go. You want to escape. You trip, you look around, like somebody is behind you. You do a little rond to the floor. Fall, look, run.
"Yes, yes. Leave your weight. Into the attitude."
As she pantomimed some of the innovations on traditional balletic moves the circular rond de jambe and bent-leg attitude that have come to distinguish her company, the young dancers marked the cues and experimented with lunges, surging forward from the waist.
Sweat was sweeping across their torsos and fear was etched on their faces. After all, they were performing the role of the "Chosen One" at the end of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) the woman who must dance until she dies.
The first speaker in the Autumn Quarter series of the Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts, Bausch drew a standing-room-only audience to Roble Dance studio on Monday evening, Oct. 18.
She was greeted, with a kiss on each cheek, by President Gerhard Casper, a fellow member of "Pour le mérit," one of Germany's highest civilian orders. Casper previously had written Bausch a handwritten note on the official letter that invited her to participate in the lecture series.
Dressed in a loose-fitting black pants ensemble, Bausch made it clear in the first few minutes of the two-hour event that her presentation would be unlike any other to date.
"I have not much words because what I have to say I will try to do with work on the stage," she said, choosing her words carefully and speaking precisely. "I thought maybe it would be nice to do a little work with the dancers otherwise I have nothing to do."
What followed was an open, unguarded rehearsal that took Bausch and four dancers from her multinational company through a grueling hour of practice. Warm-up sweaters were shed and shoes came flying off as they began to challenge difficult moves and commit the phrases to memory.
Bausch was out in front on every step, urging them on.
"It's like so, like hitting yourself," she said about a spasmodic gesture that was repeated several times.
"The head is always down, but looking up. It's like you cover yourself, you protect yourself, like fighting."
The dancers bobbed and ducked, collapsing inwardly and shielding themselves from imagined blows.
"They are just tired, the legs, so you walk with your chest [thrust forward]," Baush said toward the end of the hour. "You are coming soon to the end. You have no energy. You just collapse."
And collapse they did, to wild applause and whoops from the audience, while Bausch crouched nearby and clapped toward her dancers with outstretched hands.
"It was such a gift for her to open up the rehearsal procedure to us," said Diane Frank, lecturer in the dance division. "There was no sense that the dancers were performing for us, but instead she allowed us to see the process in real time.
"The words she used for queuing the dancers were so simple up, down, circle and didn't begin to touch the coloration of the movement in her own body, which was infinitely more complex. What I thought was so extraordinary was that you have this huge physicality the dancers are technical amazons but also incredible attention to the nuance of eyes and little gestures, like savoring adjectives."
Noting that all of the humanities are concerned with expressions about the human condition, Frank said "that's what we asked of her as a choreographer."
"There are many ways of communicating, and it was a treat to have this format and to insist that we use our eyes and our kinetic sensitivity."
By choosing to rehearse a section from Le Sacre du Printemps, Bausch turned to a canon of modern dance that Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes premiered in Paris in 1913. Nijinsky's choreography incited riots in the streets that year and successive choreographers have continued to break new dramatic ground, most notably with Molissa Fenley's athletic solo work of a decade ago.
In an interview on the Roble dance floor that followed the rehearsal, Bausch told Jeffrey Schnapp, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, that "we always carry Sacre with us and perform it from time to time. It's healthy for the company, especially the new [dancers], and everybody has to go through new things to learn it. It makes me have to open new doors."
During the program, students who filled the floor space and balcony in the dance studio listened intently.
"We'd made a deal with the presidential lecture series that our dance minors could have reservations, so we were able to get our family in to see what was going on in our living room," Tony Kramer, senior lecturer in dance, said. "They got to watch Pina work and see how dancers learn, and they were in love with what they saw."
As one of Germany's most influential post-World War II choreographers, Bausch is known for questioning her dancers about their emotions and personal relationships and then incorporating their feelings.
Anyone watching her work in the initial stages of choreographing a piece, she said, "would not think you are in a dance studio."
"Each of the dancers is, in a different way, important," she added. "Each has his own dances and his own different way of dancing, and it's very complicated. It's not just doing choreography, but it's being aware of the feelings we all have and what we are knowing. The best is just to see it."
When she first started her company, Bausch said, she tried to plan every move of every dance.
"I wanted everything to be very prepared because I was scared. I was afraid somebody would ask me, 'What do I do?' And I would have to say, 'I don't know.'
"Now, I feel like if I say something too important, I never can reach what I say, so it's better I say nothing, and hopefully something arrives."
Bausch said she pays close attention to the surprises that can happen during any rehearsal period.
"You work and suddenly something happens, but it has nothing to do with what you planned, and you have to think about what to do. Do you follow this? So, yes, I always left my plans behind.
"You have to just trust. We are there, the company and me, and life is there. And what do we do? We speak about life and love."
Born in 1940 in Solingen, Germany, Bausch studied in Essen at the Folkwang School, birthplace of the Jooss Ballet founded by expressionistic choreographer Kurt Jooss. She graduated in 1959 and studied at Juilliard in New York for two years with Antony Tudor, the British choreographer who recruited her for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.
In 1962 Bausch returned to Germany to join Jooss' Essen Folkwang Ballet. She formed her own company in 1972 and the troupe made its New York debut in 1984 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That same year the Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal opened the Los Angeles Olympic Art Festival.
The company is currently touring the United States and later this year will work on a new piece to be performed in Budapest.
"We heard one very young violinist there one evening," Bausch told the audience in Roble. "He was absolutely unbelievable, and the next day I asked about what we had experienced about what movement and images sound can make.
"It was like lots and lots of material [to work with]. I said nobody should be scared if it's not wonderful or not too wonderful, and we started to keep a videotape of each dancer, putting their movements on the video.
"After a few weeks, we [looked at the movements on the videos and] said 'forget that,' 'forget that,' 'forget that.' And finally we could say, 'Oh, now that's very nice.'"
Noting that the process of choreographing a dance can be "very strange," Bausch said "somehow you have to find the key."
"You go through everything to find that key and sometimes we're still looking for it."
Then she stopped, tracing another generous circle in the air above her head. "It's about life, actually."
When the floor finally was opened to questions from the audience, a graduate student in the drama department appeared to speak for many when she asked if the interview could be "short-circuited."
"We'd really love to see you dance some more," she said.
And dance they did, bouncing through a light social dance of several minutes. Bausch could not resist a final, flirtatious shimmy.
"It's just like a boogie, then you jump away," she said, laughing with the audience.
By Diane Manuel