The Pina Bausch Series – Episode #1: Nelken

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This is the story of how Pina Bausch irrupted in my life, turned it upside down and inspired it for ever after.

It’s been 10 years of awesome relationship.

It all started in February 2005. I had been living in London for 3 months, working in an organic grocery that I hated.

I got involved a little with a customer who was an American university professor in his 50s (and a foot fetish but that’s a different story).

He knew my passion for dance as I had recently graduated in contemporary dance myself. One day, he came to the shop and told me that I had to go and see this famous German choreographer whose company was performing at the Sadler’s Wells theatre. I knew her name from my dance history course, but I had a fairly blurred knowledge of her work. The guy really convinced me. I don’t know why I took his advice although I otherwise didn’t have an immense respect for his opinion. This man only entered my life to point me the direction of the TanzTheater Wuppertal and vanished.

After work that day, I queued outside the theatre hours before the show, hoping for a last minute ticket as it was obviously sold out. I had £25 in my pocket. I couldn’t go beyond.

While I was waiting in line, a cab stopped in front on the main entrance and a very thin and pale lady dressed all in black got out. She had a little grin on her face. Someone said: “That’s Pina Bausch!” I saw her in the flesh twice in my life, and that was the first.

As time was passing by, I was renouncing to ever be able to make it to the show that day. Suddenly, someone touched my shoulder: “Are you by yourself?” Of course I was. “One ticket is available. It’s £25.” Bingo. I was holding the precious ticket like Charlie did when he got his toWilly Wonka’s chocolate factory. I still remember the name of the original owner in print on the magical door opener: “Cohen“. Bless you Mr or Mrs Cohen. Your no-show changed the course of my emotional life.

I was one of the last people to get in, and I was still breathless from rushing up the stairs when they turned off the light of the room. The stage was entirely covered  with a field of fresh carnations. Music from the 20s started playing. Women in long shimmering dresses appeared on stage carrying chairs. They put the chairs down and sat on them. Then, nothing. They were sitting still, looking at us with the old music crackling in the background. I got the goosebumps and a rush of tears, just like that. I felt so close to the dancers all of a sudden that I could smell their hairspray from the second circle. I got hit by proper genius just as if I got hit by love at the first sight. My life was taking a turn because someone was finally talking to me.

When the giant Lutz Förster performed The Man I Love by Gershwin in sign language (see video below), that was it, Pina had just put a ring on my finger. I never took it off.

It’s been my strongest theatre moment so far – and possibly one of my strongest life moment. I’m not exaggerating. I never want to see that show again because I want to carry my initial memory of it on my death bed.

After that night, I was ecstatic for a few days, life was suddenly wonderful. People around me didn’t quite get my excitement for what they thought was a dance show – solemn and pompous. I kept saying: “You don’t get it guys, you don’t get it, I can’t explain. You have to see.”

I vowed to see a Pina show every February of my life. I’m proud to say that I only missed 2007, 2010 and 2011.

But I compensated by going multiple times other years.

I saw Ahnen on the stage of the Sadler’s Wells last night. That’s the fifteenth piece I’ve seen in ten years. The dancers feel like some kind of family now, I know all their names, I see their evolution. I notice the newcomers. I’ve been in their trail for so long.

I wouldn’t miss for the world my yearly rendez-vous with the TanzTheater Wuppertal and the spirit of Pina.

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The Pina Bausch Series – Episode #2: Wuppertal

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In February 2006 I went with α on an adventure to the home of the TanzTheater Pina Bausch: a weird city in the Ruhr called Wuppertal. It was my first anniversary with Pina, one year that she had slapped my face with her extraordinary dance theatre.

Wuppertal is famous for its upside down subway, the Schwebebahn. The train is actually hanging from the rails. It is disturbing to be in there when travelling above the river. The Schwebebahn gives a funny and unique look to the city. I also read in an interview of Pina that Wuppertal has an abnormal number of sects. I can see why people there would be desperate to enrol in something that would give a meaning to their life. It is a gloomy land.

The piece, Kontakthof, was performed in her theatre, an old cinema turned into a live performance space. It fitted her work perfectly. Everything about the place made sense with her. Seeing a show in the choreographer’s natural habitat helped me understand her better.

At the end of the show, when the dancers were bowing, I saw a very long and thin arm in the left wing of the stage. It was her so characteristic arm, recognisable among millions. She was giving directions to the dancers. I was moved to feel her presence, even invisible in the backstage.

The year after, I came back to the Ruhr to take the entrance audition at the Folkwang Hochschule, where Pina Bausch was the head of the dance department.

It was my second attempt. I didn’t even make the first cut, so I found myself alone in the Ruhr with a couple of days to kill.

I managed to find my way to the Zollverein, a sublime and impressive disaffected industrial complex right outside Essen, where they used to exploit the coal mines. The huge structure and machinery are still there but they got all covered with vegetation after the last coal was extracted in 1986. The place has been turned into a cultural complex, there is a museum, performances and other arty things going on.

I got lost alone in this Heterotopia for a whole day. The sun was out. There was no other living soul walking around the beauty of the premises. I adore industrial buildings and I had it all to myself. I felt like the Queen of an abandoned Kingdom. My heart was sinking and swinging between a feeling of immense freedom and images from Germinal by Emile Zola. A lot of human drama must have taken place where I was walking.

The human drama was still perceptible despite the beauty of the architecture, the nature growing over the brick buildings and the vivid light of July.

At this instant, I understood where all the darkness and despair omnipresent in the pieces of Pina Bausch were rooted. She was a child of the Ruhr. She soaked in the atmosphere of the coal mines since she had been born. “The Ruhr was her essence” said one day Pina’s friend Gérard Violette, former director of the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris.

This is exactly what it was. That day, alone in the immensity of the remnants of the 19th century industrial revolution with its flow of hopes and disillusions, I felt the essence of Pina Bausch.

 Zollverein

The Pina Bausch Series – Episode #3: The Audition

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In 2006, upon my return from Wuppertal, I applied for the entrance exam at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen – the University of the Arts where Pina was the director of the dance department.

One day, I received a letter in German, which I speak well enough to understand that I was invited to their auditions in July, right before my 23rd birthday.

It was the summer when Germany hosted the World Cup. There was a heat wave, both in the climate and in the atmosphere. I remember sweating days and nights. It’s been among the most intense few days of my life. I’ve never been under such adrenaline. I had randomly booked a hostel called “Goal Fever” and the name didn’t strike me until I found 2 hooligan-looking dudes sleeping in my supposingly female-only dorm. I had a moment of panic. Something as intense as climbing the Everest was expecting me, and I had to focus. No time for drunken football drama. Thank God, England was soon eliminated and all the guests went home. I was almost completely alone in the property. I remember rehearsing late at night in the empty corridors. Awesome feeling.

There were three rounds of audition held by some of the legendary dancers of Pina Bausch – Malou Airaudo, Dominique Mercy and Lutz Förster among others – with a call back the day after for those who had made the cut at the end of each day.

There were ballet and contemporary classes every day, improvisation, and répertoire. We learned excerpts from The Rite of the Spring so the jury could gauge how percussive our energy was. Malou Airaudo – the Goddess who was in the original cast of the piece – was demonstrating the movements. I had to really focus to pick them up quickly, just because I wanted to indulge into watching the beauty of the mythical dancer without having to worry about getting the choreography right. I have to say that it felt quite natural to my angry nature to incorporate that piece. I will forever regret That I never worked with Pina directly, even one single time.

I made it to the last round together with 34 other dancers. The final round took place the day after France got qualified for the World Cup finale, so dancers and football players were all kinda on the same boat.

At the end of a very intense day of audition, they called the 18 names who had won their entrance ticket to the School. I wasn’t one of them. It was the worst disappointment of my life. I left the studio right after and I headed to the airport to fly back.

I started crying on the bus and it lasted for three days. A huge German lady grabbed me to give me a hug without asking. I started crying in her arms and I was feeling like a ridiculous dwarf. I created a movement of curiosity and compassion throughout the city of Essen that day, because I was crying super hard everywhere I was going. I sat in front of the station, waiting for the bus to the airport, and I triggered an unprecedented solidarity drive. I am smiling when I look back at this episode.

Random people were handing me tissues, candies, cigarettes. Someone asked if they should call the police or if it was just a boyfriend issue. I didn’t try to explain that the person who broke my heart in a thousand pieces was a famous choreographer in her 60s. Why are you always supposed to be desperate over a boy when you are a cute blondie? I only articulated one explanation in German: “My life is over!”

I was so messed up that when I finally got to the airport, I didn’t recognise anything. I asked a nice lady at the info desk. She confirmed my awful impression. I was at the wrong airport. I had stopped crying for a moment because I was completely dried out, but there was apparently an unexpected reserve of water inside me, so I collapsed on the counter and cried more. The nice lady gave me a cake. Germans are awesome, they always carry a bunch of food in their handbag just in case they need to cheer up strangers.

I failed my audition and missed my plane on the same day. I didn’t know anyone in town so I went back to the completely deserted hostel to spend the night. There wasn’t even a staff member when I left early in the morning. I finally made my way back home completely spaced out. I was so depressed the following days that I even ate a hamburger in front of the World Cup finale. I am a vegetarian and I was eating steak when Zidane hit Materazzi with his head. What a disastrous evening.

Because I am fucking stubborn, I tried the entrance exam again the year after. This time, I didn’t even make the first cut. They knew they didn’t want me. I was tempted to do the whole crying scenario again but I kept it minimal. I sobbed a little in a café and a lovely couple proposed me something to eat. Hahahahaha.

Two girls entered the café and walked at me. They were students of the dance school and they watched the auditions. They asked me how it went today. I said that I was out. They said they remembered me from the year before and that they didn’t understand why I hadn’t got in, because from their perspective, I had the profile the school was looking for. They kept saying “Komisch, komisch!” (“Bizarre, bizarre”). They were so sweet. They told me in German: “We want to tell you that we are big fans of yours. Please keep dancing!!!”

I remembered that story a few days ago in front of a dance performance. Oh girls, I fucked up. That’s the story of my life. I get in where I don’t fit and I don’t get in where I fit.

My life is not over, though. Right?

.Pina

The Pina Bausch Series – Episode #4: Dancing With Dominique

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In 2008, I was living in Paris. One morning of February, I got on the Eurostar to go and see Pina Bausch’s Café Müller and The Rite of the Spring in London.

I had to honour my vow to meet up with the TanzTheater Wuppertal every February of my life.

When I got off the train in the British capital, I walked a few steps on the platform, and my heart jumped. There was this tall, gracious and so familiar silhouette a few meters ahead of me. I travelled on the same train as Dominique Mercy, the most iconic dancer of the TanzTheater Wuppertal and long-life friend and muse of Pina Bausch.

It is not in my habits to act like a groupie, but before I knew it, I started running to catch him up. I engaged conversation with him, in French, of course.

-“Vous êtes Dominique Mercy? – Oui. – I am going to see you perform Café Müller tonight. I came to London just for the show! – What an honour!”

He replied as if he wasn’t one of the most idolised dancers of the world who had been acclaimed for decades on the most prestigious international stages. I could notice that among the dance artists, the more talented and recognised they are, the more humble and putting themselves into question they seem. Huge artists are humanly fascinating. They are a different breed of people. I feel privileged to have received little inspirational pieces here and there.

I asked him if he was ever teaching masterclasses. He said that he was sometimes invited at the Ateliers de Paris Carolyn Carlson as a guest teacher. We exchanged a few more words, and when our paths split, he turned at me and said “A ce soir!” (“See you tonight!”) What an exquisite human being. Equally beautiful on and off the stage.

I started monitoring the program of the Ateliers de Paris Carolyn Carlson, and my patience paid off.

In February 2010, two years after my lucky encounter at St Pancras International station with Dominique Mercy, I got accepted on a week intensive workshop he was teaching. That year, my February rendez-vous with the TanzTheater Wuppertal would be of the dancing kind.

On the first day of the workshop, I arrived early at La Cartoucherie de Vincennes, an awesome theatre complex near the woods right outside Paris.

We were starting in the morning with a technical contemporary class till lunch break. But we were going so much into the depth of the emotion and interpretation of the movement in each exercise that we ended up having lunch in the middle of the afternoon without realising. Time was suspended. We were magnetised. Every clue, every explanation that Dominique was giving us was a pure dance gold drop.

Dominique was restless in class. He gave his energy without counting, although he was already 60 at the time. (He is 65 now and still performing.) When we were doing the exercises 2 by 2 in a diagonal, he was doing the movements full out with each group, and we were about 30 young dancers in the workshop. By the time each of us had done the routine once, he had done it 15 times without showing any sign of fatigue.

He was singing along with the live musician, making jokes. He was so lively and funny in the studio. When one of us would call him to get an explanation or to ask to show a movement again, he was walking at the person making the sound of an ambulance, like “Rescue is on its way.”

He didn’t even bother eating real lunch, just nibbling a few biscuits. Dance really seemed to feed him.

After the break, we were learning an excerpt from the répertoire of Pina Bausch until the end of the day.

Dominique was teaching us a variation from Masurca Fogoa piece by Pina Bausch inspired by Lisbon. There is a movement at some point where we put our closed fist on our forehead. Dominique showed us the exact position of the hand. He then moved his fist a few centimetres up and said: “If you put your hand there, it conveys a different message.” He went back and forth between the two positions to let us appreciate the difference of meaning. Pure genius pedagogy.

Dancing with Dominique for a week equalled ten years of regular training.

What is striking about his teaching is that absolutely everything makes sense, just like a choreography by Pina Bausch. The roots and reasons behind every single prop or gesture are thought of just like in the science of our dreams.

The body and the psyche are coordinated together so that the spectator can actually relate to it. It resonates with everyone, because it has been thought of over and over again until it is charged with signification. There is nothing random or abstract about the language of Pina Bausch, that’s why her success as a choreographer was so huge across cultures and millions of people could identify to her dance-theatre. That dance language is so clever.

It was moving to observe Dominique from so close, to watch his legendary arms. He was filling the space in an impressive manner. His resemblance with Pina Bausch only stroke me in the studio. I hadn’t realised by seeing him on stage how much these two looked like dance twins. No wonder they found and recognised each other instantly.

The last day of the workshop, the rehearsal was opened to the public. Some people of the press were there alongside some anonymous lovers of Pina Bausch. It wasn’t a formal show but an intense and captivating work session like we had been doing the whole week.

I wanted to go and talk to Dominique at the end of the performance, saying I don’t know exactly what, asking how I could get involved with the company, something along those lines. But I didn’t. I didn’t see the point after all. I wasn’t sure of myself. I lacked courage.

Instead, at the end of the show and of this magical dance week, I got introduced by a friend to the girl who was going to become my girlfriend. She had just arrived in Paris for a few days. “Congratulations!” she said as she kissed my red and sweaty cheeks. A new chapter of my life instantly opened as the last one was barely closed.

Fate and its mysterious timings.

The pictures of the workshop are the property of Patrick Berger, photographer. I am the little blonde dancer at the far right on the last picture, in the purple tights. 

The Pina Bausch Series – Episode #5: The Pilgrimage

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Throughout 2014, the City of Wuppertal organised festivities to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the TanzTheater Pina Bausch.

As a true Pina disciple, I had aligned all my stars to be present.

I went on an lonely 4-day pilgrimage to pay my respects to the woman who changed my life, and whom I presumptuously think of as my Spiritual Mother.

I arrived in Wuppertal on a grey day of January. The weather was as humid as my heart. I had dragged myself to the airport in tears because my lost love had been stirring the knife in the wound. This is the context in which I re-established connection with Wuppertal, 8 years after my first visit.

Had anything changed or was it conform to my memories?

The city was impregnated with Pina’s presence. Every public building was carrying her mark. The gloomy atmosphere of the Ruhr smelled of her ferocious dance-theatre.

I lived in her trail for 4 days.

I was staying at an isolated hostel up the hill of Wuppertal, in the middle of the woods, almost by myself in the building. An incredibly meditative Pina retreat started.

My loneliness was resonating in my temples. I loved it.

I attended workshops taught by dancers of the company. The first one was held by Nayoung Kim at the dance studio of the Wuppertal Opera. I shivered when I got changed in the dressing rooms used by the Gods of the TanzTheater Pina Bausch. I shivered when I glanced outside the window of the dance studio, thinking that all the cult pieces that shook me on stage had been created and rehearsed with that view.

I shivered all along.

The second workshop was held by a dancer I didn’t know and Malou Airaudo, one of the most emblematic female dancers of the company. Oh My God. Watching Malou. I remember thinking, when looking at Malou Airaudo, that we are all equal as human beings, but some contain so much more than some others. I don’t know. It just feels like the dancers of Pina Bausch contain the whole world and they are yet so fluid and slender. How do they contain that much? They are a different breed of human beings. That’s all I can say to summarise them.

Malou Airaudo is rough but huge-hearted as a teacher. Everything about her screams generosity, starting with her impressive hair. I had already dealt with her at the Folkwang Hochschule auditions. She’s abrupt in an awesome way. You can tell she never had time to beat around the bushes in her demanding dancer’s life. During the technical class, she was correcting us without ceremony. She was showing us movements and was then saying: “And I am 66!” as an evidence of how much more bravery we could use at our young age. It isn’t a matter of age though. It is simply her nature to be ten times as gorgeous as all of us together. Malou Airaudo is pure strength, pure wildness, pure sophisticated yet untamed dance. I rarely saw pure dance from that close.

Then.

I saw a piece at the Wuppertal Opera House, ‘For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. 

I saw exhibitions of photographs, stage props, set sketches, costumes from pieces I had seen or not.

I saw an installation made by the stage designer of the company in the beautiful glass building featured in the tribute movie by Wim Wenders. It was a funny moment. I sneaked in the park where the glass building is located, at the top of a hill above Wuppertal. I had gone all the way up pulling my suitcase. Again, I was completely alone in the park. Everywhere I was going, I was completely alone. A man finally came to me and asked me in German how I had managed to get in, because the park was closed to the public that day. He was kind enough to let me finish my sandwich.

I saw all that could possibly be seen about 40 years of dance theatre by Pina Bausch.

In between the stages of my pilgrimage, I was furtively crying because my lost love had been stirring the knife in the wound.

On the last day, it was time to complete the ultimate mission of the journey. I wanted to go on Pina Bausch’s grave to talk to her and thank her for opening my eyes on what life really is about. I wanted to tell her that her show ‘Nelken’ was the highest moment of my life.

There are at least 7 cemeteries in Wuppertal and it was a true investigation to track the one where Pina was buried (without internet access to make it burningly challenging.) I don’t remember how I put the pieces together, but I found the name of the correct place and managed to find my way to it. Again, it was up a hill and I was pulling my suitcase. (I don’t know why, I often walk alone up hills throughout the world carrying heavy stuff.)

I wanted to put carnations on her grave, as a tribute to ‘Nelken’ (‘carnations’ in German).

There was a little flower shop at the entrance of the cemetery. Flower man had two carnations left. I had 1.50€ on me that I should have kept to take the bus, but well. “How much for the two carnations?” I asked.“One is a bit broken so I can do both for 1.50€”. I smiled. I am sure that Pina was watching the scene. He gave me a map with the path to find her, and he kept my luggage.

I found her resting place easily. Near a pond and tall trees. That’s the closest I ever got to her.

How much do I regret never talking to her, even a few words, never taking a class with her, never exposing my dance to her glance. All those years of adoration until she passed away, I had an anchored certitude that I would end up meeting her some day, even somehow working with her just a bit. It was so obvious that the announce of her sudden death left me hammered and sceptical.

There I was standing on her grave, donating her my two humble flowers which were so small and ridiculous compared to the thousands she had inundated my heart with. How much do I love this woman? It is insane. I love her more than so many people I should morally love more than Pina Bausch.

I wrote her a thank you card with a woman dressed as a man. I cried a moment and asked her how she had dealt with the loss of her love*. It comforted me a little.

It started raining.

I left to catch my plane.

*Rolf Borzik, Pina Bausch’s great love and first stage designer, died of leukemia in 1980.

For further reading about Pina Bausch, see my articles (in French) posted on Toute La Culture, including reviews of Vollmond, Two Cigarettes in the Dark, and Masurca Fogo, a portrait of Pina by those who knew her and a reflection about why female artists, including Pina Bausch, are systematically labelled feminists.