Arts: Hopelessly devoted to you

Her dancers are old hands but the inspiration of Pina Bausch remains as fresh as ever. By Nadine Meisner

Elusive, reclusive: Pina Bausch's mythical status grows by the year. When she joins the curtain-call at the end of a performance, it hardly seems possible it is her and not a hologram. She is a gaunt, baggy- trousered figure, an overworked creator of potent images who smiles a sphinx smile and locks arms with her interpreters.

Tanztheater Wuppertal are her family, her nomadic tribe, 30 men and women who dance, speak, sing and play games. They perform on stages covered in grass, or snow, or mud. They are so devoted to Pina they will throw themselves against walls, wear nappies and smear their faces with lipstick - and that's just the men. They are multinational, as individually flavoured as ordinary people, the opposite of flawless ballet clones. They act with an uncluttered, childlike directness. They are you and me, with our childhood experiences, our adult hopes and fears, our joys and miseries.

Like us, they are all ages - although when the company started 25 years ago they more or less belonged to the same generation. Some early members have retired but rush on stage when Pina beckons them back for a revival, as Malou Airaudo did for the Bausch-Gluck Iphigenia in Tauris at the 1996 Edinburgh Festival. Some continue in the company, such as bulky Jan Minarik who specialises in carrying and cross-dressing, and Dominique Mercy, a sinewy blond Frenchman, edging 50 but still dancing flat-out solos.

The performances of Viktor this week will be the company's first London season since 1982. London needs them more than they need London. Wherever they appear, they are sold out. Ticketless desperadoes stand on pavements - in the June clamminess of Paris, the December snow of Berlin - holding scrawled notices, "one ticket please". A reluctant interviewee, Bausch manages very well without PRs and journalists. Everything you want to know about her, she says, you can see in her work. But occasionally she caves in, or allows her dancers to cave in, especially this time, to please an edgy Sadler's Wells publicity machine.

Dominique Mercy turns out to be charming and informative. I ask how it is that Bausch's performers - trained dancers who do a daily ballet class - don't have the stiff verbal delivery of non-actors.

He explains: "It's because much of the material comes from the dancers. What you see in the pieces, in these small scenes, are the result of questions which Pina has asked us."

Bausch uses these questions or cues to elicit improvisations. "And each dancer responds in a personal way, in keeping with their experiences and imagination." So out of this come many of the Bausch's trademark components: the enchanting visual jokes, such as the makeshift swimming-pool in last year's Masurca Fogo, a plastic sheet held by two men and filled with buckets of water; or the rerunning of intense moments until they become heart-breaking, such as the waif in Tanzabend 11 (1992), who repeatedly drags herself out of the snow, only to be carried back tenderly and cruelly.

If the pieces have the multiplicity of life, it's because they come from just that: from multiple points of view, with Bausch as a funnel distilling them into theatre. She sifts, edits, collates and glues together. "There is a trust between her and us," says Mercy, who in Nelken (1982) plunges his face into a pile of raw sliced onions. "I know that she will not exploit us simply as a form of exhibitionism. It is not the purpose of her work."

He first met Bausch in 1971. "I was immediately dazzled and touched by her person and her choreography," he says. Others recognised her genius early on and Bausch did not struggle through wilderness years. Born 58 years ago, in Solingen, in the Ruhr, she enrolled as a dance student in the Folkwang School in nearby Essen. The distinguished choreographer Kurt Jooss was in charge of the dance department and Bausch learnt classical ballet, modern dance and choreography. At 19 she won a scholarship to New York, where she went to the Juilliard School of Music and worked with another exceptional choreographer, Antony Tudor.

She returned to Essen to assist Jooss with the Folkwangtanzstudio, the school's graduate performing group which he was restarting. She created her first piece for them in 1968, remembered as "very abstract, very dancerly," and soon after became the artistic director, a post she still holds.

Then came the bold invitation from another neighbouring town, Wuppertal, to form a choreographer-led company at their opera house and she started, with Mercy, Jan Minarik and Malou Airaudo among her dancers. The opera house's subscribers, accustomed to conventional ballet, took time to adjust. Her launch piece, Fritz (1974), was already dance theatre, though it had no text. "It was about the fantasies of a boy," Mercy remembers. "And there was a parade of strange guests: a bearded woman, twins, a sick man in a nightgown - that was me." The house was only half-full to start with. "But then people started leaving, slamming the doors behind them."

Her danced versions of Gluck's Iphigenia in Tauris (1974) and Orpheus and Eurydice (1975) scored an immediate success, however, as did her monumental Rite of Spring (1975). After Cafe Muller (1978) she always included words; from Bluebeard (1977) onwards she used improvisation as her creative tool and her work acquired its prismatic, episodic structure.

Detractors claim that this has ossified into formula; yet to me there are clear shifts of theme and emphasis. For example, a Fascist oppression runs through the red carnations of Nelken, which Jan Minarik closes by declaring: "I became a dancer because I did not want to be a soldier." Whereas Danzon (1995) seems to be about ageing and the sadness of this, especially for dancers. It also marks Bausch's performing comeback, in a wrenchingly elegiac solo of arm gestures that resemble a farewell.

So what about Viktor, premiered in 1986? It exemplifies Bausch's desire to preserve the old as well as create the new. It is one of her vast, broad-canvased spectacles, like 1980, which she showed on her last London visit. Viktor was also her first co-production with funding from a foreign city - Rome, in this case - an arrangement she has often repeated since.

"When we do a co-production," says Mercy, "we usually arrive three weeks early in the city to gather sensations and generally open our antennae." These impressions colour the studio improvisations, but the result is an evocation instead of a literal depiction. "Viktor is not about Rome, because what interests Pina is not the city, it is the people living there."

Who is "Viktor"? "He's a ghost; but it will be up to you to decide who or what this ghost is." What else can he say about the themes? He laughs and shakes his head. "When Pina starts work, she doesn't even talk to us about themes." Although she must have certain ideas in the back of her mind, she prefers to keep things fluid, so that the material can develop an organic life of its own. Similarly, to explain a piece before I see it, is to fix my expectations beforehand, closing my mind. "It would be a betrayal to explain Viktor to you," Mercy says.

"What I try is to find the pictures, or the images, that can best express the emotion I want to convey," Bausch once told me. "I am not telling a story in a normal way. Each person in the audience is part or the piece; you bring your own experience, your own fantasy, your own feeling in response to what you see. Everybody comes away with a different impression."

Sadler's Wells, London EC1, tomorrow to Sat (0171-863 8000)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions
    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions