Pina Bausch & Her Postmodernist Theatre of Experience

Following from Robert Wilson’s postmodern Theatre of Visuals, we can now explore further artists and companies who demonstrate highly postmodern styles.

Dance, being a non-linguistic form of communication, is dependent on creating a visual ‘poetry’ about a subject matter, as Pina Bausch discusses, “Basically one wants to say something which cannot be said, so we make a poem where one can feel what I meant.”[i] The work of the Wuppertal Tanztheater explores open-interpretation styles and redefines dance, by opposing the aesthetic norms, as being postmodern.

Tanztheater can be seen as a shattering of traditional theatrical illusions, a process rather than a product that provides a certain merging of the aesthetic with everyday life, since it resists closure from within a place that is not entirely aesthetic.[ii]

Pina Bausch trained in New York from 1959 to 1962 whereupon she returned to her native Germany and, after a steady rise in recognition for her work, in 1973 she became director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet, shortly to be renamed the Wuppertal Tanztheater since it employs a more postmodern, theatrical style in its work which cannot be defined as conventional dance, since “unlike performers in classical ballet, Bausch’s dancers do not attempt to make their movements appear effortless”[iii], but it cannot be defined as orthodox theatre either as her works rarely have a sustainable plot and do not rely on dialogue. Integral components to her work include choreography, sets, time, space, stage, music, speed, costumes and personalities. Each component helps to communicate something that movement and words cannot express alone. They become sign systems, something the audience can read and interpret, which echoes Artaud’s first manifesto. Janice Ross defines Bausch’s work as,

…highly visual and textural, as much as kinetic spectacles, and this adds to their visceral impact … These dream-like visual sequiturs are hallmarks of Bausch’s work and they rely heavily on the audience to give form and assign meaning to what is seen.[iv]

Her dances would last for three to four hours in length and would present a free association of themes rather than a linear narrative to the audience. Where conventional dance had previously been the domain of ‘beautiful appearance’, the Tanztheater would confront the spectator with ‘reality’ and would focus, primarily, on the intricate relationships of human behaviour and the exposure of self-deceptions (i.e. beauty). Bausch rejects traditional theatre aesthetics in favour of a ‘transmission of primarily emotive experience’.   Gabrielle Cody comments on how, “mimesis is regarded by Bausch as the malignant reproduction of self-alienating acts, the drama of her performers’ bodies is shown to exceed a representational system that no longer contains them.”[v] In rejecting these conventions Bausch embraces Artaudian and Brechtian principles. Brecht is a direct influence on Bausch, on her return to Germany it was only natural that she should mix her style with German precedents such as Brecht.


Echoes of Brecht

Bausch uses some of the basic concepts of Brecht’s Epic Theatre. Her political goals, however, are different. Brecht aimed for a highly political theatre, Bausch (while her performances demonstrate potentially political themes such as fascist males and feminism in shows like Bluebeard ) aims more at a theatre of experience. Dramaturgically she uses Epic Theatre concepts such as gestus, montage and defamiliarisation, but ultimately (unlike Brecht) she desires to show people as they really are, “demonstrators of their own bodies, not the body of some passer-by, as in Brecht’s street-scene model.”[vi]

Gestus, for Brecht, reveals how relations of production determine social relations – it is the exaggerated ‘ideological’ gesture. Bausch derives all of her movement from gestus. Her choreography is constructed through a close observation of gestures used by self-conscious men and women. Cycles of movements are then developed which are endlessly and rhythmically repeated.[vii] Exemplifying to the audience a depth of social inhibition.

More importantly though is the use of defamiliarisation within her work. The conventions of an ‘active stage’ and a ‘passive audience’ through a fourth wall are disposed of. This enables a participatory involvement of the audience at all times. Birringer states that, “Bausch’s dancers acknowledge and investigate the presence of an audience”[viii] and in a number of Tanztheater performances the houselights would come up on the audience allowing the dancers to interact with them. In one particular opening scene the traditional theatre situation was reversed as the performers scrutinized the audience.[ix] Another technique Bausch uses is that her stage action is always de-centred, several montage sequences occur simultaneously forcing the audience to split their focus and challenging the convention of observation. Bausch never gives a sense of completeness to her performances, allowing them to continue to develop and change through the performance itself. Owing to this, the spectator is aware that they are observing a theatrical process. “By exploring the theatrical process, dance theatre destroys theatrical illusion.”[x]


Cruelty in Bausch’s Work

Artaud, in his first manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty, wanted a stage that was full of objects and bodies that, when observed by the spectator, would be instantly recognisable as signs open to interpretation with no fixed meaning. Bausch, through her detailed and significant sets reflect this Artaudian concept.

Bausch also recognises his concept of cruelty. Artaud refers to cruelty as the ‘necessary pain of life’ and Bausch illustrates this perfectly with her demonstration of relationships.

In Café Muller a man and woman lock in a desperate embrace, only to be systematically repositioned by another man so that the woman keeps sliding from her partner’s arms and crashing to the floor. This repeats nearly a dozen times until the forlorn couple repeat this brutality on their own in a Pavlovian response of self-inflicted brutality.[xi]

and another example, also from Café Muller, is a moment where a couple are involved in an awkward duet culminating in the two alternately slamming each other into a wall. The violent and aggressive images within her work are accentuated by the use of repetition to the point where physical exchanges are often considered to be ‘repulsively brutal’.


Cafe Muller – Pina Bausch

Many of the themes dealt with by Bausch revolve around personal relationships, love and intimacy – particularly between men and women, individuals and groups. Other themes that regularly feature in her work are loneliness, alienation, rejection, the inevitability to make human connections, and the struggle for self-identity. For Janice Ross, “In a Pina Bausch dance the invisible divide between the real person and the stage character seems to collapse so that one often has the sense of watching barely mediated real life events.”[xii]

Bausch works to show the spectator what exists outside the boundaries of conformity. Gender issues are portrayed in Bausch’s work as being pushed to and beyond their limits. Frequently the sexes are represented in her work as social stereotypes where the male is dominant and the female is vulnerable and weak. She opposes these typical ideas of men and women by deconstructing their roles, men will dress in women’s clothes exposing their internal femininity, women will wear high heels through dance sequences to show the pain and anguish of their femininity. Real, raw emotions are exposed by both sexes in an attempt to reveal the individuality and susceptibility of people.


Relationships in Other Dance/Theatre Work

Strange Fish, among other works by DV8 Physical Theatre, explores the representation of relationships between men and women, groups, the individual and gender in much the same way as Pina Bausch. As the publicity for Strange Fish indicates,

This piece dares to address intense and gruelling areas of our spiritual and emotional life … The tyranny of couples and groups, the pain of not belonging and the terror of being alone are laid bare in a series of powerful images which are both pitiless and profoundly compassionate.[xiii]

In this show the company uses a structure of repetition and investigative and emotive approaches to the topic of relationships. Through opposing the conventional plot-based theatre aesthetic, resulting in an absence of story, the performers generate a style that at times causes discomfort to the viewer. DV8 present a number of symbolic and representational deconstructed sign systems throughout their video and live productions that are open to interpretation. An example of this in Strange Fish is one of the more powerful scenes where a rejected girl stands at her door and a torrent of pebbles fall before her. This image can be translated in a variety of ways; symbolically it could be viewed as her world collapsing around her.

We will explore more about DV8 and their work in challenging taboo topics in our next article, considering how they employ postmodern principles in their work to achieve addressing subjects that may otherwise be discredited.


[i] Broadhurst S Liminal Acts Ch.4 p.71[ii] ibid Ch.4 p.82

[iii] ibid Ch.4 p.79

[iv] Ross J

[v] Cody G Woman, Man, Dog, Tree p.123

[vi] Wright E Postmodern Brecht p.119

[vii] Goldberg R Performance Art Ch.7 p.206

[viii] Birringer J Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism Ch.6 p.136

[ix] Broadhurst S Liminal Acts Ch.4 p.75

[x] ibid Ch.4 p.80

[xi] Ross J

[xii] ibid

[xiii] Hinton D & L Newson Strange Fish DV8 Films, Video Sleeve