Pina Bausch was staying at the Hotel Jolly. The Hotel Angst must have been full

DAYS 13 AND 14
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The Independent Culture
It's 10 o'clock on an oppressively hot morning in Amsterdam and I'm in a hotel lobby waiting for Pina Bausch. The 55-year-old choreographer has been here for the Holland Festival, which has presented five of her works, but only at the 11th hour (minutes before the season's final performance of Nelken [Carnations] at the Theater Carre) did she agree to the brief interview. Soon, Bausch and the members of her Tanztheater Wuppertal will be on the coaches back to Germany.

Bausch's general manager strides across the lobby to deliver the bad news; Pina has gone out, but she should be back by 10.30am. I'm gripped by a mild panic and imagine the scenario - Bausch eventually returning with just minutes to spare - which is actually about to materialise. I recall all the forget-the-interview-just-see-the-show advice of the past few weeks, wearily handed out by people who, from their own dealings with Bausch, know how seldom she talks to the press.

At 10.35am Bausch appears. A small-boned woman with soft, dark eyes and long brown hair, she clutches the carrier bags of a good morning's shopping in one hand. "I met some Bulgarians I know on the street," she says, by way of explanation for the delay, and then increases my panic level fourfold by telling me that she hasn't yet finished packing.

I wait. I watch the Tanztheater Wuppertal performers check out, one by one. They look alarmingly normal, unlike the frock-wearing men who leapfrogged across the stage, or the women who hurled complaints at the spoilsport disciplinarian conducting a game of grandmother's footsteps during the previous night's performance of Nelken. And what an amusing, if slight, irony that Bausch, a woman who for most of her career has been regarded as Europe's most dedicated purveyor of angst, gloom and neurosis,should be residing at the Hotel Jolly, for no adjective is more redundant in describing Bausch's dance theatre productions of the past 20 years. Cruel, sad, poignant, beautiful, uplifting, but never jolly, Bausch's work deals with the past to which we are apt to cling and the reality from which we cannot escape. Neither nostalgic nor sentimental, pieces like Nelken borrow from the personal histories of Bausch's performers, whose stories are adapted and shaped into a collage of movement, music, speech and song.

To some, the antics of the Tanztheater Wuppertal will never amount to much more than theatricalised, multicultural group psychotherapy featuring grown-up men and women whose formal dress is the veneer for a controlled but troubled adultness. But while scenes in which fighting, playing and crying constitute a large part of Bausch's terrain, her emotional ground has become less rocky over the years, although she still focuses more on what moves people than on how they move. When Bausch says, "We suffer together," she's not asking her audience to share in some kind of mutual pain; what she means is that no one needs help in recognising or understanding her world, simply because it's our world, too. That much was clear 15 years ago when the company brought the epic 1980 to London's Sadler's Wells Theatre and influenced a new generation of emerging choreographers and theatre directors.

In 1992, after 10 years of waiting for Bausch to return to London, I decided to see her full-length Tanzabend II in Paris. Until then, I'd have said that humour was not Bausch's calling card, although 1980 had a healthy quota of jokes. Rather, as the American choreographer Paul Taylor states in his autobiography, "Some of the views in her darker dances [were more] admirably put forth and uncomfortably easy to relate to." While Nelken, created in 1982, isn't one of these darker dances, much of its fun has a sinister dimension. Jan Minarik, the show's self-appointed immigration officer, patrols the stage asking for passports; a team of Alsatian dogs bark at the men whose crouching posture, interrupted by frog-like jumps towards an unmarked border, makes them seem like fugitives or refugees.

While Bausch has always favoured unusual floor surfaces - turf, peat, sand, water - for her productions, her performers have become adept at making their own brand of absurd art out of the details of inappropriate attire or behaviour within these semi-indoor, semi-outdoor environments. Nelken takes place on a stage which has been transformed into a bed of pink carnations. Two hours later, the dancers leave a landscape of trampled blooms, yet the final picture is still one of idyllic resolution rather than pointless destruction.

At 10.40am Bausch arrives in the lobby, ready to talk. I have at least 25 questions to ask; she has time to answer about three. Why carnations? "Nelken is about falling in love for the first time," she replies, in a manner which suggests either misunderstanding or an alternative interpretation of my enquiry. Certainly, the opening routine induces a feeling of trust rather than terror, for you quickly realise that invitation, not confrontation, is Bausch's game. Scenes follow and top one another in a revue-style format, against a soundtrack combining Schubert, Gershwin, Lehar, Louis Armstrong, 1920s jazz and South American marches. As in 1980, Bausch creates a chorus line which snakes through the auditorium repeating an infectious semaphore of arm and upper-body gestures. And, as in that work, the dancers leave us with prankishly doctored truths about their lives: "I became a dancer because I had an accident, and didn't want to be a soldier."

Michael Morris, whose Cultural Industry organisation facilitated the 1992 and current Edinburgh Festival performances of Bausch's work, is still trying to bring the troupe to London. But while the capital's Bausch fans, starved of her productions since 1982, continue to wait, the Edinburgh Festival is due to receive the Wuppertalers for the second time in four years.

Tanztheater Wuppertal performs 'Nelken' at the Edinburgh Playhouse, 31 Aug to 2 Sept

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