PRINT February 1984


EVERY TIME HAS ITS FASHIONS, and every cultural period its guiding personalities. In new theater this personality is—and has been for fifteen years now—Pina Bausch. I say “new theater” and not just theater, or dance, or ballet, to designate that theater of movement which looks to the future, floating in an area more vast and open than the traditional. Now, when classifications have lost their meanings, the term “new theater,” vague and yet indicative, seems appropriate to a cultural atmosphere that has broken down boundaries and divisions among disciplines and has either outworn the definition of avant-garde or confined it to other eras. This is the arena of the Living Theater in the ’60s and Robert Wilson in the ’70s—although by mentioning these I do not mean to ignore other, if less representative, examples of this renewal of expressive means. The theater of gesture was succeeded by a return to imagery, and after a parenthetical analytical and conceptual period the path split in two directions: toward the reconquest of the word, sometimes with a neo-naturalistic edge, or toward prose that was dissembled by the introduction of dance or sound (or vice versa).

This is where Pina Bausch comes in, with her dance company which pretends to have turned its back on dancing. She competes with Wilson in her use of space and time, employing snobbishly eclectic sound tracks which mix classical pieces and “retro” pop songs, yet obsessively return to the absoluteness of silence; there are also excursions into speech, consisting of monologues, first-person narrations, simulated improvisations, and flights of pure nonsense, in a cosmopolitan mix of languages.

The space is generally seen as an empty stage, preferably with the dimensions of a lyric theater. Certain appointed elements appear as though they already existed in the space—a piano or a mirror or a console, as well as numerous chairs of various sorts. These are usually arranged along the wall, but might be used anywhere, or moved along various lines toward the center of the stage, becoming props but also functioning as connective elements or as simple obstacles.1 Likewise various materials are scattered about the floor, which might have a surface of water, or flowers, or of a meadow. In each case the stage is a stage, even if it is not flanked by dressing tables and chairs, as in Arien (Arias), 1979, or by seats arranged as if in a movie theater, as in Konfakthof, 1978. It is always essential to reconstruct the rite of the spectacle within the spectacle itself, even if the exemplification is not obvious, as when the work includes rehearsals (Arien) or, perhaps, a dance (Bandoneon, 1980). In any case, the first step whereby the performers are required to confront themselves is self-representation, illustrated by the constant recourse to autobiographical confessions to the public, but also by an appropriation of characterizations that are maintained from one show to another, even though the protagonist might change. Moreover, the role of the master of ceremonies (performed by Jan Minarik) recurs. This personality, borrowed from the music hall, serves to stimulate the action; he interrogates and torments his colleagues,who are aware that he is playing at making theater.

It is no accident that each elaboration is structured by “numbers”; at times the show even allows for the self-gratification of applause within its structure. Naturally this game, with its heavy mantle of debts—with performers wearing ’50s evening dress, but with a large number of men dressed as women, or a performer stripped naked—has its own set of stage rules to be observed. The language of geometry prescribes oblique paths of movement, alignments of a varied order (facing outward toward the public), movements forward and back, toward and away from the proscenium in horizontal lines. The progression of the “numbers” is governed by alternation, so that a particular live act may echo a choral sequence, with classical pieces immediately following and in perfect syntony with American Indian pieces—all in agreement in their following of the leader’s parodistic and deformed stance. Each of these entries, typical and often overwhelming, is repeated several times, with the performers appearing on stage one after another in varying combinations,alone or in couples. The repetition of a gag may also be picked up after a lapse of time, in the course of the performance, as often occurs in the most recent pieces. In Bandoneon (or earlier, in Café Müller, 1978), the resumption of pieces already seen becomes an expressive theme in itself, so that the interweaving of the leitmotivs and the prolongation and explication of themes previously only hinted at forms a sort of puzzle. It is as though time has been stopped, immobilized by a suite of mechanical repetitions and made to turn around itself, as in the novel, The Invention of Morel, 1964, by the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy-Casares.

The same principle of alternation that regulates the figurative composition governs the rhythms, so that a lingering in immobility calls for frenetic acceleration as a reaction, with the former usually reserved for a single performer, intuited as a pioneer or explorer of the space, while the dynamic passage involves the successive entry of the group. But as in a syllogism, one can build up from the detail to its opposite, to the universality of the spectacle, which in its canonic duralion demands close to three hours and spreads out in concertlike fashion in a succession of allegros and adagios, of both burning intensity and dead stillness, active numbers and periods of expectation, presented horizontally, without dramatic progression. These lead to the next, penultimate section made up of intentionally difficult passages; the work then concludes in an orgasm of noise and applause. Time unites with space in the antitheses of solids and voids, with no hope of their being reconciled.

Still, if this analysis, based on theatrical structures and obvious as far back as Die sieben Todsünden (Seven deadly sins, 1976) has any credence, at the core of each performance is the development of a predetermined theme. Before examining these it is necessary to run through Bausch’s history, which began with a training in classical ballet during her early years, to the still sharply felt influences and sources that distinguish her mature work, to her confrontation with texts ranging from Bertolt Brecht (in the above-mentioned Die sieben Todsünden, adapted from Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s 1933 musical of the same name, and in a much reworked version of Brecht’s and Weill’s Happy End, 1929) to Shakespeare—in Macbeth, though retitled with a stage direction from the tragedy, Sie nimmt sie an der Hand and führt sie in das Schlöss, die anderen folgen (He takes her by the hand and leads her to the castle, the others follow, 1978). The new title is appropriate in that it is this stage direction which determines the representation, a sort of long celebration, in the hall of an abandoned castle, more German than Scottish, which is populated by night-mares and schizophrenic visions and perhaps tinged with remorse. The characters move about like amphibian shadows, given that here one finds oneself faced with the choreographer-director’s (which is she, really?) first baptism by water.

With these works based on earlier texts (not to mention, if one goes back further, her Le Sacre du printemps, 1975, based on Stravinsky’s work), one can already speak of an autonomous creation, as will later be the case with Café Müller, which, even if orphaned of literary ancestry, still belongs to the realm of narrative. Later, from 1978 on, the field is cleared for compositions all Bausch’s own, without pedigree to which she must be indebted. From this point on, the plot,which had regularly been lost along the way, officially gives up its place to the overriding theme, not always delineated in the title. In Keuschheifslegende (The legend of chastity, 1979), for example, the title comes from a story told in the course of the performance. The Pina Bausch thus described usually sketches out her works against an ambience of “the theater,” or of a ritual linked to it—for example (to list at random, a few), a rehearsal, a fashionable party, a diplomatic gathering, a birthday party (or, more generically, an anniversary), or childhood games; as well as dance examined in all its possible variations—as in the waltz in the homonymous performance (Walzer), or the tangos in Bandoneon.

Having chosen her subject, she then develops its free associations, its practical applications, and its parodistic derivations, exploiting the personalities of the interpreters and squeezing sensations out of them, even reaching to their unconscious so that they engage in a sort of psychoanalytical striptease. Then, of course, it is up to Bausch as the coordinator to find something good in all this, to expropriate it, and graft it to appropriate techniques. From all of this one comes to understand the source of the personalities who crisscross the individual spectacles, creating out of a subjectivity immodestly exposed in its primordial masks. But often this descent into the depths is not required, or is revealed by simple extroversion, from the moment the company appears on stage, only to carry out a series of games closer to the so-called games of society than to the maieutic exercises practiced in the Stanislaysky method, to the anthropological workshops of American theater groups, or to the “clinic” workshops of Wilson.

The gamelike basis of these performances leads back, with certain changes of tone, to the ritual of reunion or of the social soirée. And this, beyond the theatrical setting, is the second common thread throughout her work. It is legitimate, then, to compare Keuschheifslegende, hinging as it does on the recreation of a party, to La Dolce Vita—a comparison suggested not so much by the use of the music of Nino Rota (who wrote the score for Federico Fellini’s movie), as by the general climate of revival in the work and the score, whose elongated tempos imply a mythical boredom. There is also a sociological note to the piece, with certain moralistic aspects—for example, in the placement within a human landscape of five crocodiles who tirelessly caper among the interpreters. The introduction of animals onto the stage—a realistic-looking hippopotamus, in Arien; German shepherds (real, this time), in Nelken (Carnations, 1982–83)—is a theme that she uses over and over, like a stamp of figurative research, a reply perhaps to Wilson’s phantasmagoria, although in this case the inspiration is not Surrealist.

Above all, however, Bausch refers to Bausch, each of her works leading inexorably to the next. One could say that each season’s new series of shows continues to offer up a new variation on a theme, a spectacle that even in its insistent, novel richness takes part in a uniquely grand, global spectacle which encloses and contains all her works, and which is posed as an ideal model for successive simulated reproductions. And if we follow a transverse reading from one to another of her works, beyond themes, across the spider’s web of her alphabet of gestures (an alphabet already schematicized beneath the specter of an emblematic society), we will find ourselves facing and mirrored by not only a critic and accomplice, but will also find unveiled before us a first-person protagonist within the community of actor-dancers from Wüppertal. For it is of them that she speaks. They are transfigured by her quotations yet condemned to express true neurosis, liberated in play yet stylized through a transmission of signs. The often agonizing splendor of the visual picture; the flux of ideas; the enthralling explosion of rhythms; the weave of movements, both measured and consciously unharmonious, cannot help but transcribe what lies behind our daily obsession with happiness—the anguish and the solitude of ordinary life.

Franco Quadri is an Italian theater critic and the director of the theater section of the 1984 Venice Biennale His most recent book is Il Teatro degli anni settanta, vol. 1 (The theater of the ’70s vol 1), Turin ed. Einaudi, 1982.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. In Café Müller the chairs fill up the space and impede the characters, who are forced to push them away, causing them to fall over; they thus dramatize the action and create a substratum sound. But within Bausch’s oeuvre this is an anomalous piece—in its narrative context, in its more specific setting, and in its one-act length.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.