Pina Bausch, humanity expressed through dance

The story of Pina Bausch, one of the most important and influential dancers and choreographers of the 20th century.

Pina Bausch, humanity expressed through dance
Pina Bausch, humanity expressed through dance, © Getty / ullstein bild

When asked about the sense and meaning of her performances, she often replied: "It's up to you to find it". One of the most important figures in the history of 20th-century dance and a veritable ambassador of the Tanztheater genre ("theatre-dance"), Pina Bausch passed away on 30 June 2009, leaving behind a series of choreographic works exploring the various human emotions, and the social and romantic relations within.

The name Pina Bausch immediately brings to mind women dancing in long dresses, men in black suits repeating incessantly the same movement, moments of laughter, cries and tears, a distorting mirror of our daily life. Yet behind each of the intense performances hides a discreet and mysterious creator, Pina Bausch, who never revealed anything concerning her opinions or private life.

"With her aristocratic face, tender and cruel, mysterious and familiar..." (Federico Fellini)

Pina Bausch en 1971, à Berlin.
Pina Bausch en 1971, à Berlin. , © Getty / ullstein bild

"This is where dance comes in"

One must try and imagine Pina Bausch watching her dancers during their rehearsals. Smoking constantly, with her brown hair in a long ponytail and always wearing the same neutral, androgynous uniform. 

Calm, tendern but equally modest, Pina Bausch created a new form of ballet, a form in which the dancers speak, shout, and challenge the audience, a form in which the morphologies do not respect any norm or rule except diversity. 

"Certain things can be said with words, others with movements", she explained in 1999, upon receiving her honorary doctorate from the University of Bologna. "But there are also moments where words do not suffice [...] This is where dance comes in."


Philippina Bausch was born on 27 July 1940 in Solingen, a town in West Germany. Her parents owned a café-restaurant, and one of Philippina's favourite activities was to watch the customers, listening to their conversations whilst hiding under the table.

Following her dance studies in Germany with Kurt Joos (a key figure of expressionist dance), Philippina Bausch was awarded a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New-York. There, in the heart of the bustling American metropolis, she discovered a stimulating and inspiring cultural diversity, one which she would later seek to recreate with her own company by recruiting dancers from the four corners of the earth. 

Représentation de "Nelken", à Hambourg, en juin 2000.
Représentation de "Nelken", à Hambourg, en juin 2000. , © Getty / ullstein bild

Welcome to Wuppertal

In the early 1970s, Pina Bausch was already an accomplished dancer, having performed on several occasions at the New York Metropolitan Opera, collaborated with various world-renowned choreographers such as Paul Taylor, and even became a regular teacher of modern dance… 

However, an important milestone in her career appeared in 1973: Pina Bausch was approached by Arno Wüstenhöfer, director of the Wuppertal Opera House and cultural centre, a moderately-sized east-German town near Cologne. Bausch was given carte blanche by Wüstenhöfer to recruit and manage her own dancers, and create her own works. 

The first steps on the road to creation

Between 1974 and 1978, Pina Bausch staged on average two to three dance productions every year: some inspired by her work with Kurt Joos, others unique creations, and others still adapted from pre-existing works. With Iphigénie en Tauride (1974) and Orphée et Eurydice (1975) by Gluck, Bausch gave rise to a new genre: the danced opera, in which the vocal music and the dance are united, complementing and answering one another.  

But the road to creation was not without its obstacles and fears, and Pina Bausch's strategy was to lead without direction: "I simply dared to go... where I did not know the result", explained Bausch in 2006 during an interview with the journalist Anne Linsel. 

The Pina method

During the early stages of a production, Pina Bausch asked questions to her dancers, and set them challenges: What are the different ways of sitting down? How can one dance love? Or Suffering? She would then let her dancers improvise, observing them in silence and choosing various elements for her choreography. 

Cristiana Morganti, dancer, choreographer, and member of the TanzTheater Pina Bausch from 1993 to 2014, explains: "I loved this phase, we were truly free to do whatever we wanted. There were lots of clothes and objects at our disposal... At certain moments, we were like children, having fun and laughing like mad."

"However, we had to develop a complete awareness of what we were doing, to give a meaning to each one of our movements," continues Cristiana Morganti. "Sometimes we suggested one thing, and Pina would ask us five months later to do exactly the same thing, with the same details, the same dress, the same hairstyle." 

Facing the critics

Whereas on the inside the dancers and the choreographer were becoming extremely close, the reception of Pina Bausch's work was far less friendly. During the 1970s, in Wuppertal, few spectators appreciated the silent, violent, painful, and hypnotic dance scenes. Many were scandalised by this new form of dance that was the TanzTheater (theatre-dance), veritable laboratory of human emotions. 

Pina Bausch danse dans "Cafe Muller", au Festival d'Avignon de 1995.
Pina Bausch danse dans "Cafe Muller", au Festival d'Avignon de 1995., © Getty / David Lefranc

"When she began to do TanzTheater in Wuppertal, the public was furious. She was sometimes forced to stay locked in the theatre until 3am, with the director and the scenographer, because various angry audience members were waiting outside! They hated it, and they were ashamed of what she was doing. This pained Pina greatly", explains Cristiana Morganti.


"In the early 1980s, Pina began to tour abroad, where she was met with a phenomenal success", continues Cristiana Morganti. "And there, in Wuppertal, they began to realise that they had a rather special artist! She was now adored in Wuppertal."

Beyond the German borders, notably in Paris at the Théâtre de la Ville, Pina Bausch found great critical success and received widespread praise. Performances were continuously sold out, invitations were highly sought after, and works such as The Rite of Spring (1975), Café Müller (1978), Kontakthof (1978) and Nelken (1982) quickly became a part of the history of dance.

Between two extremes

"When we joined Pina's dance company, we immediately felt a part of something very special", explains Cristiana Morganti. "We felt that we were experiencing something unique... But at a price! Pina worked long hours, and asked of her dancers to go beyond their limit... And she was rather unpredictable!"

The work of Pina Bausch relies upon the use of tension, a permanent oscillation between the banal and the exceptional, between tenderness and violence. On stage, the choreographer wanted to show "normal" people, all the while revealing their deepest intimacy, their suffering and inner struggles. 

"The most beautiful things are in most cases entirely concealed", explained Pina Bausch in her speech given at the University of Bologna in 1999. "This is why I enjoy working with relatively shy or proud dancers, those who do not expose themselves easily. [...] Pride ensures that if someone reveals something very small, that is very special and must be considered as such."

Perpetual questioning

Pina Bausch answered questions with other questions, including those regarding the subjects of her works. Thus, when asked about the meaning of Café Müller and Kontakthof, she firmly replied that there was no message to deliver, encouraging instead the audience's subjectivity. 

The spectrum of her artistic questioning gradually widened, moving beyond the sphere of intimate emotions towards the realms of culture and society. Her productions became increasingly luminous, and her journeys encouraged her to draw upon and express different influences and traditions: : Sicily in Palermo Palermo (1989), Turkey in Nefés (2003), Japan in Ten Shi (2004), and China in The Window Washer (2000)...

"Le Laveur de Vitres", inspirée par un séjour à Hong-Kong et créé en juillet 2000 au Festival d'Avignon.
"Le Laveur de Vitres", inspirée par un séjour à Hong-Kong et créé en juillet 2000 au Festival d'Avignon., © Getty / Sergio Gaudenti/Sygma via

"She has changed enormously", remembers Cristiana Morganti. "In the end, she would say that people were already suffering enough, and that it was not necessary for them to suffer even more when going to the theatre!". When Pina Bausch and her company arrived in Paris in 2007 to perform once again Bandonéon, a particularly long work, the choreographer questioned the very rhythm of the production she herself created 27 years earlier. 

"In 2007, she realised that the production had its weaknesses. She herself could no longer stand certain extremely long timings. She hesitated in change certain elements, she struggled internally, but Dominique Mercy [one of the dance company's most emblematic dancers] encourged her to keep the production as it was, faithful to the original version..."

New horizons

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Pina Bausch and her company of forty-odd dancers multiplied the artistic residencies throughout the world: Budapest, Palermo, Hong-Kong, Istanbul, Tokyo, Madrid, Seoul, and Kolkata to name but a few… She was an artist mindful of avoiding any and all provocation during her travels abroad: "When we staged productions in Asia or in India, for example, she paid close attention to the way that we were dressed so as not to disrespect the culture or the religion", notes Cristiana Morganti.

Pina Bausch never sought to disturb her audience, nor make them uncomfortable. Above all, she sought to stage the world that surrounded her: "It is not an art-form, nor even a mere know-how. It's about life, and therefore about finding a language for life", she explained in 1999 at the University of Bologna.

Pina Bausch en 2007, à Berlin.
Pina Bausch en 2007, à Berlin. , © AFP / Barbara Sax

Ten years after her death, her company TanzTheater Wuppertal continues to perform her works. "At times, I know it's not the same without Pina, without her guidance," admits Cristiana Morganti, who has not danced with the company since 2014. "But it's true that these productions have such strength, their construction is so amazing, that I tell myself it is necessary to continue staging these productions."