Who Is Pina Bausch?

Pina Bausch was a dancer and choreographer who changed the course of performing arts and whose works transfixed people from around the world.

Apr 19, 2024By Mihaela Gutu, MA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and Literature

who is pina bausch


Primarily appreciated for her roots in German Expressionist Dance known as Ausdruckstanz, Pina Bausch is also praised for rewriting the rules of how theater and dance mix together. Pina focused on opening new pathways toward innovating the universe of performing arts. When she staged her first pieces, the audience was left surprised and puzzled. Many left the auditorium slamming the doors shut. The choreographies were new, weird, and unappealing to some.


Pina Bausch’s First Stage 

pina bausch training
Pina Bausch by Walter Vogel, 1966. Source: Pina Bausch Foundation


Born in 1940 in Solingen, Germany, Philippine Bausch was the daughter of August and Anita Bausch, who owned a small hotel with a restaurant in it. She and her siblings were always hanging around, helping their parents, and interacting with customers. Her parents’ workplace and its atmosphere cultivated Bausch’s passion for dance, theater, and people. The hotel became the first stage she performed on.


Bausch herself recalled how she used to hide under the tables and listen to people’s stories about many things—happiness, grief, love, friendship, melancholy, struggle, fear, desperation, hope, and light. This, along with the fact that she interacted with so many people and had the opportunity to observe their personalities, shaped her own character. She remarked later in life, “I’m not interested in how people move but what moves them.”


The soon-to-be choreographer performed for the hotel’s guests not only in the restaurant but also in their rooms, trying to impress them with her talent. When Bausch was five, her parents took her to her first ballet class. Pina knew, from the very beginning, that there was something special about her. Shortly after, she started performing on stage. She got small roles, of course, but they meant the world to her. That’s when she realized that all she wanted to do in life was dance.

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From Essen to New York

pina bausch portrait
Pina Bausch by Walter Vogel, Year Unknown. Source: AnOther Magazine


Unsurprisingly, Philippine Bausch was accepted into the Folkwang School for Music, Dance, and Speech when she turned 14. She was mentored by Kurt Jooss, who aimed to combine the fundamental rules of ballet with the freedom of movement and expression. Without a doubt, Kurt Jooss was one of the few people who influenced and inspired Pina the most. At this school, Bausch also learned about other forms of art, including music, drama, photography, and sculpture.


At 18, Bausch received a scholarship that gave her the opportunity to spend a year in New York, studying at the famous Juilliard School. So she set off for America to learn more. During her time in New York City, Pina was taught by Antony Tudor, the founder of the London Ballet and the Philadelphia Ballet Guild. Another notable teacher was José Limón, a dancer and choreographer who founded the José Limón Dance Company and developed the Limón technique. Let’s not forget about Paul Taylor, the founder of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, whom Bausch even performed with. All these people saw Pina for who she was—a brilliant, astounding dancer and choreographer.


Not long after her arrival in New York City, Bausch was selected to perform at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company with Antony Tudor himself. This was followed by multiple appearances on stage alongside other renowned dancers and choreographers. Nonetheless, despite enjoying her time there, Bausch stayed in New York for only two years, after which she returned to Essen to continue working with Kurt Jooss.


A New Era: Tanztheater Wuppertal

sweet mambo pina bausch
Sweet Mambo by Pina Bausch, Oliver Look, Year Unknown. Credits: Théâtre de la Ville, Paris


Soon after returning to Essen, Bausch started choreographing her own pieces. The first work she choreographed was called Fragment. The music was composed by Béla Bartók and the show premiered in 1967. Shortly after, she was appointed head of Jooss’ Folkwang Tanzstudio. However, the true challenge arose when Bausch was asked to become the artistic director of the Opernhaus Wuppertal Ballet. This was not something she envisioned for herself, so she refused. Luckily, Pina was pursued to take on the job. This marked a turning point in both her life and the history of performing arts. The Opernhaus Wuppertal Ballet was renamed to Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.


Before working on the iconic pieces produced at Wuppertal, Bausch relied on thorough planning of every single detail. One day however, she decided to completely change her course of thinking and she gave up on planning anything. She started going with the flow. Before her take-over, Wuppertal was known for shows featuring classical ballet. Pina, on the other hand, wanted to revolutionize dance by combining multiple performing arts in a single piece. At the same time, she wanted to express the feelings of a community and simultaneously focus on a dancer’s inner experiences.


Spectators Would Leave the Auditorium 

Iphigenie auf Tauris by Pina Bausch, Ian Whalen, Year Unknown. Source: Semperoper, Dresden


During rehearsals, Bausch used to ask her dancers questions. She asked what moved them, what they yearned for, and how they felt once they lost something. She also had other unconventional methods. For example, Pina once asked a dancer to express the moon through dance, while another was asked to show happiness and joy. This way, Pina combined traditional choreographic techniques with storytelling, drama, and the power of music.


As expected, the audience was outraged when Bausch’s pieces premiered. They were undoubtedly completely unconventional. People did not like them. It was not easy to see feelings expressed so freely without a spoken word. Many visitors left the auditorium. Others even made telephone calls to the rehearsal rooms to share their thoughts on the pieces. The newspaper reviews were not great either. Not even the orchestra believed in what Pina was making, but she did not give her ideas up. Her goal was to challenge spectators and she did just that.


seven deadly sins pina bausch
The Seven Deadly Sins by Pina Bausch, Photographer and Year Unknown. Source: Tanztheater Wuppertal


This lasted for several years. The audience could not get used to the new way Pina’s artists performed on stage. Although it was a challenging period for her, Bausch continued working fervently, sketching thousands of her ideas, trying to translate words and feelings into movement. Rolf Börzik, the costume and set designer of many of Bausch’s pieces who was also her husband, played a significant role in the process.


His inventiveness and out-of-the-box kind of thinking put Bausch’s choreographies into a new light. Together with Börzik, Bausch combined her choreographies with various natural elements, like fallen leaves, twigs, branches, flowers, soil, coffee chairs and tables, animals, water, and stones. For one piece, The Seven Deadly Sins,  Börzik and some stage technicians actually recreated a whole street on the stage. So, eventually, people started to understand her work better. They started hearing what Bausch was trying to say.


Cafe Müller: A Choreography Performed With Eyes Closed

cafe muller pina bausch
Cafe Müller by Pina Bausch, Photographer and Year Unknown. Source: Tanztheater Wuppertal


Cafe Müller is by far the most renowned piece choreographed by Pina Bausch, not only due to its iconic status in the history of 20th-century dance but also due to Pina’s presence in it. This is one of the few works she performed herself. The choreography was likely close to Bausch’s heart since her childhood served as inspiration for the piece. The stage for Cafe Müller was made of randomly placed chairs in a room with three doors. The choreography required only six dancers—three women and three men. Their costumes were highly reminiscent of everyday clothes further enhancing the feeling of everyday life being.


The dancers performed repetitive movements with their eyes closed. Bausch herself stated that dancing in Cafe Müller with her eyes open would have changed everything.


Male-Female Interactions in Pina’s Choreographies

The Rite of Spring by Pina Bausch, Stephanie Berger, 2017. Source: Brooklyn Academy of Music


Another Bausch choreography worth mentioning is The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. It was performed on a stage covered in soil. The choreography required 32 dancers whose formations on the stage, along with the movements, costumes, and facial expressions, combined perfectly to portray the tribal dynamics and the power of the sacrifice. In The Rite of Spring and other pieces, the male-female interaction is omnipresent in Bausch’s choreographies. There’s a focus on the imposed gender norms and invented concepts. For example, Bausch hypersexualized women in her choreographies to satirize society’s attitude toward them. Men, on the other hand, were often given costumes that included dresses or heels that would further enhance the absurdity of gender norms.


Vulnerabilities Shown As Strengths

nelken pina bausch
Nelken by Pina Bausch, photographer and year unknown. Source: São Luiz Teatro Municipal. Lisbon


Bausch’s dancers remember her fondly. They considered her a mentor and an icon. Pina did not speak much. But when she did, she always said the right things and she always asked the right things. Working with her meant digging into one’s memories and traumas. It also meant outlining a more clear idea of one’s dreams and goals. The dancers had to create gestures and use objects to express whatever they felt and found beneath the surface. This freedom equaled strength and provided them with a safe space to explore their vulnerabilities.


Pina herself was always exposing herself on stage, if not physically, then emotionally. For instance, after Börzik’s death, Pina choreographed a piece named 1980 that unquestionably had touches of sadness to it. That same year, Bausch met her future husband and the father of her child. After giving birth to Rolf Salomon Bausch in 1982, she choreographed Nelken, a highly representative piece that required the stage to be filled with thousands of carnations—flowers given to mothers.


Pina Bausch’s Legacy

full moon pina bausch
Full Moon by Pina Bausch, Vladimir Luvopskoy, 2022. Source: Impulstanz


Pina Bausch passed away in 2009 at the age of 68. That same year, she started collaborating with Wim Wenders, a German filmmaker, in order to make a 3D documentary about her work. She died two days before the first day of the shooting. Wenders continued working on the documentary and the movie premiered in 2011 at the Berlin Film Festival. In 2009 and 2010, Bausch’s work was commemorated around the world through choreographies dedicated to her memory. Her pieces are still performed in different corners of the world.


Even today’s audience remains puzzled by her choreographies. They have been described as dreamlike works that force the spectators to forget that they are looking at a real stage. Pina Bausch is survived by her son Rolf Solomon Bausch, but she is also survived by the many dancers that she mentored and the spectators that she moved. The effect Bausch had on people is undeniably timeless.

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By Mihaela GutuMA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and LiteratureMihaela is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. She’s an avid reader of classic literature with a background in literary studies and literary translations. She is obsessed with language grammar and syntax, so spending hours dissecting sentences and texts is a pleasure for her. Mihaela grew up in a family full of artists. Although she pursued a career in literary arts, she’s also passionate about performing arts (particularly dance) and visual arts. In her free time, Mihaela plays with her cat Cappuccino, binge-watches TV series, rereads her favorite books for the tenth time, and spends time online learning new stuff.