Life Lessons from Pina and ‘Pina’

By Merilyn Jackson

Few choreographers have the power to effect life-altering changes the way Pina Bausch did over the course of her 50-year career, and, even now, three years after her untimely death. That is what Pina does. She changes your life. She changed mine and she changed the lives of others I know. She altered my life so much, before and still long after I met her, that I have always felt touched, blessed, and saw my own work stretch to a level beyond what I had achieved. I’m even writing a poem about her effect called Pina, Queen of the Desert.

German filmmaker Wim Wenders in a recent NPR interview spoke about the first time he went to a performance by Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal. “I found myself on the edge of my seat, crying like a baby after five minutes, and crying through the entire thing,” he recalled. “I was hopelessly, helplessly crying, and didn’t know what was happening. It was like lightning struck me.” The work? It was Café Müller, from 1985, and he says it changed his life.

Anyone who’s seen the film Pina (I have, three times, in previews in Philadelphia and New York) is struck with wonder, even if they haven’t seen it in 3D. I made a new friend: a German professor teaching in the U.S., he had not known about Bausch, but was so taken by her and the film that he ordered it in Blu-Ray for his university library, yet hasn’t seen it in 3D. I told him he can’t imagine the adrenaline rush of nearly ducking when a sheer curtain flies toward you, a Wuppertalian monorail car feels as if it will run you over, or buckets of water come splashing at you.

It took Wenders many years of research to overcome the difficulties of learning to use the 3D equipment, adapt it to dance, and strip it of anything remotely Disneyfied or cartoonish. Not every frame is perfect, but I’d have to watch it a few more times to point out the flaws. For the most part, seeing the depth and additional perspective that is achieved with the 3D will make you never want to see dance filmed any other way. I wish there were a way to see dance live like that – from every angle all at once.


My first brush with Pina was a year before Wenders’, at her Bluebeard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the only venue in which the company performed in the U.S., except for Nur Du, which traveled to four U.S. cities. That was it for me. I couldn’t stop talking about the Bauschian women, their hair whipping through the water-filled basins, or thinking about the work’s dark, violent beauty. There followed, I don’t know in what order: The Seven Deadly Sins, Café Müller, Danzon, Two Cigarettes in the Dark, Nur Du (Only You), and Nelken (Carnations), which I saw in 1988 at BAM and again in 1999 in Tempe, Ariz.

Twenty-some years later, many of those same dancers gave Wenders their loving assistance to make Pina, which had been scheduled to begin filming a few days after Pina’s shockingly quick death in 2009. Thanks to his blockbuster 3-D film, which is playing in cities around the U.S. this month, people who never saw her work performed live will no doubt also be touched on some essential level.

The film, which had been in planning almost since Wenders saw Café Müller, is an Oscar nominee in the Best Documentary film category. Wenders contacted Bausch the day after seeing Café Müller in 1985, and they began a plan with two ground rules: no biography of her and no interview with her. Wenders said that Bausch was modest about herself. That is perhaps not quite it. Having met her on several occasions, once for three hours one on one, I would characterize her as being wryly protective of herself and her private life.

Born Philippine Bausch on July 27, 1940, in Solingen, a small German town where her parents ran a restaurant, she sat under the tables unsupervised, sometimes past midnight. She grew into a solitary, dreamy child from this kind of benign neglect.

There were keys to peeling back her protectiveness if you had the luck to spend time with her and to charm her. I was invited to Phoenix to interview her before the opening of Nur Du for The Phoenix New Times. The next morning she let me whisk her away to the Yaqui town of Guadalupe. That’s where the Matachini Yaqui dance the Easter Deer (or Pascua) Dances and she wanted to see where they’re done. The hot October sun soon dappled Bausch’s moonlike cheekbones with incipient freckles, so I took her indoors as much as possible. As mothers, we found common ground and she talked about her only child, Rolf-Salomen. Her son, fathered by the poet Ronald Kay, was named after Rolf Borzik, her lover and artistic partner who died in 1980.*

Each of the dancers who were with her from the start, as was Dominique Mercy, or for many years, like Nazareth Panadero, Andrey Berezin, Mechthild Großmann, Julie Shanahan, will always wear some of the skin Pina laid on them. Along with the others in the ensemble, in his film Wenders has them parading in different scenes while gesturing with their arms and hands in unison. They all have that elusive, smarmy smile they often wore in performance — as if they just got laid.

But Wenders’ breathtakingly beautiful film now offers dancers around the globe a chance to dip their own creative toes in Pina’s oceans of mystifying, often hard-to-grasp work.

For dancers unacquainted with Bausch’s work, Pina is not only a mother-lode of still-new ideas, but some are discovering in retrospect how she influenced them without their realizing it, as if her effect on the dance world were as elemental as the air we breathe.

I ran into Philadelphia dancer/choreographer Anne-Marie Mulgrew moments after she saw the film. We talked about how her recent work Salt might have been unconsciously influenced by Bausch. Mulgrew’s use of salt drifting down from the flies recalls the organic elements Bausch so often used in many of her works.

“Yes,” Mulgrew wondered, “and didn’t [Philadelphia choreographer] Megan Mazarick use a few wheelbarrows full of dirt in one of her recent pieces?” She did, but that’s nothing compared to the tons of dirt used in Bausch’s Rite of Spring. You can see how they unloaded and raked it as elegantly as one of her dances in a fascinating scene in the film.

“I am very new to her work,” says Philadelphia-based dancer Guillermo Ortega Tanus since seeing the film. “I appreciate how she expresses and transcends human pain in poetic ways. It’s a combination of sensuality and nostalgia. Her work has a sense of humor and is not pretentious or artificial. I felt engaged with the way she uses the space, the dancers, the music choices, and the costumes.”

Donna Faye Burchfield, chair of University of the Arts dance department in Philadelphia and, for many years prior, dean of the American Dance Festival (ADF) School in North Carolina as well as chair of Hollins University dance department, is one of many leading figures in the dance world who met and spent time with Bausch. Burchfield traveled to Wuppertal in the late 1990s with her then nine-year-old son, Levin. Motherhood was an instant bond between Burchfield and Bausch as well. “She kissed him on the cheek,” Burchfield recalled, “and she watched him rollerblading around with great interest.”

So how did Pina change her life?

“One year at BAM I saw a different work every night, and I even flew to Texas to see Nur Du in ’96,” she said. “Didn’t someone say you can’t imagine what freedom is until you have seen it? Seeing her work gave me the freedom to imagine dance differently. She gave me permission.”

Wanting to pass that sense of freedom on to her rising dancers, Burchfield’s department purchased 100 tickets to take the entire freshman class to see Wenders’ Pina. They are, she says, still chattering about it.

In 1996 I reflected on how surgically incisive Bausch’s perceptions about people and our habitats are in Nur Du, made in the cultural desert that was, at the time, Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale. Nur Du was kind of a slice of life, for some. Thanks to Wenders we’ll have a lasting glimpse at the lives Bausch touched and created, both in reality and on the stage. Pina and Pina will go on changing lives for a new generation of artists and dance makers for a long time to come.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Broad Street Review, national publications such as Pointe, Dance, and Dance Teacher magazines. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. More than 800 of her articles have appeared in publications as diverse as The New York Times, The Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, Arizona Highways, The Warsaw Voice, and MIT’s Technology Review. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts awarded her food-driven novel-in-progress, O Solitary Host, a Literature Fellowship. A chapter of the novel, “A Sow of Violence,” appeared in the Massachusetts Review fall 2004 Food Matters issue. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland. In 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She is also a member and former board member of the Dance Critics Association.


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