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Bausch in Japan on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut. Copyright: Andreas Schiekofer

The Reluctant Provocateur: On the Passing of Pina Bausch

Her choreography is celebrated world over; she was the chief originator of the international success of German dance theatre. Pina Bausch has passed away. Many years of cooperation linked the artist with the Goethe-Institut. By Petra Roggel
3 July 2009

Paris in 1997: the Goethe-Institut had just talked Pina Bausch into rehearsing a new production of her piece “The Rite Of Spring”. It would be performed by the renowned Ballet de l’Opéra National. Yet, at the very first encounter with the dancers and soloists, long-time Goethe-Institut director and Bausch’s contemporary Georg Lechner remembers, she almost caused an éclat. The artists, not what one could call lacking vanity, protested loudly when Bausch ordered them to appear at the next day’s rehearsal without makeup and jewellery. To them it was an insult. The next day they arrived insulted, yet without makeup and unadorned. The choreographer stood in front of the ensemble and said: “I want you to be the jewels in this production.”

The performance was her first production outside of her own company and was eventually so successful that the ensemble still keeps the piece in its repertoire. Since then, not a season has passed in Paris in which a new work by Bausch was not presented.

With her own ensemble Bausch revived other older pieces on the initiative of the Goethe-Institut, such as “Iphigénie en Tauride” of 1974 to present it at the Opéra Garnier in Paris.

Bausch during a visit to Kolkata with the Goethe-Institut. Copyright: Martin Wälde


Pina Bausch began her career with Kurt Jooss, the man who invented Tanztheater in the 1920s, becoming a master student in 1955. In 1959, she completed her dance studies at the Folkwang School. A DAAD scholarship sent her to New York for two years before she began her career as soloist in Jooss’s Folkwang Ballet.

She began producing her own choreographic works in 1968 and took over direction of the Folkwang Dance Studio in 1969 and in 1973 the Wuppertal Tanztheater, previously known as the Wuppertal Ballet and managed, along with the Wuppertal Theatre, by Arno Wüstenhöfer. Her style evolved from modern dance to dance theatre.


At the beginning of her time in Wuppertal, Pina Bausch’s works were perceived as provocation. The audiences and press were outraged; the taboo-less display of such deep sensitivities and uncompromisingly frank emotions was, itself, taboo. It was never Bausch’s intention to provoke, yet new approaches in art always lead – today as yesterday – from irritation to outrage and rejection.

Arno Wüstenhöfer had a visionary sense of this artist’s potential and supported Bausch in Wuppertal through and beyond all of the uncertainties. Jochen Schmidt, critic at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recognized her talent and with his articles was able to move the public to, at least, “stop throwing tomatoes,” according to Georg Lechner, one of the Goethe-Institut directors who brought Bausch to diverse cities around the world. As early as 1979 the company travelled to Southeast Asia on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut and gave guest performances there in Seoul and in Mumbai with “Spring Sacrifice”.

First she travelled the world, and then became known at home

The performances in India promptly triggered a scandal due to the female dancers’ costumes (considered too revealing), and further guest performances had to be cancelled. In 1980 the Goethe-Instituts were involved in the company’s first South American tour and in the 1980s at and with the Goethe-Instituts Bausch developed the type of pieces that would characterize her further career. They were always created following intense studies in the respective countries involving the entire company.

This period of examination on location was what Pina Bausch loved best and was made possible by worldwide Goethe-Instituts. On their return to Germany, the dancers and choreographer always raved about the incredible personal input and the knowledge and connections of the people at the Goethe-Instituts. This professional, contextual and artistic support enabled them to gain insights into the societies they visited, themselves singular experiences, such as outings to the then not yet publicly accessible catacombs in Rome, karate lessons under masters in Hong Kong and taking part in Sinti and Romani celebrations in Hungary.

This cooperation led to works in the United States, Portugal, India and France and later in South America and Turkey. Bausch toured regularly since the 1980s – travelling to places such as Israel, Australia, Japan, Indian and the United States. Bausch’s approach – choreography about people and human psychology – was understood internationally. She thereby not only opened doors for German dance around the world, but also opened doors for the Goethe-Institut. Conversely, it was her success overseas that helped make her work better known in Germany.

Frank, curious, impartial

It was never pure, absolute and abstract dance and mere movement that interested Pina Bausch, but rather theatrical imagery, socially critical themes and realistic elements. As a result for the choreographer this meant that her dancers were no longer silent, but also sang and spoke on stage. Her dancers became individuals, with personal preferences, quirks and tics. Her works “combine bustle and placidness, maelstrom and solitude, mirth and sadness, noise and silence, brightness and darkness, wit and frustration, life and death, solo and ensemble, stillness and motion” (critic Jochen Schmidt in a Goethe-Institut publication). Her way of asking questions to cause her dancers to uninhibitedly reveal their innermost feelings was unique.

Pina Bausch died on Tuesday. Around the world, people mourn a fascinating woman. Bausch’s frankness, her curiosity and her impartiality always astounded everyone she met. In many cases, Goethe staff members became her lifelong friends. “Pina,” says Georg Lechner “was part of our lives.”

She was also part of German culture as only few others. Whoever spoke of dance theatre usually meant Pina Bausch’s dance theatre. The works rehearsed will be her legacy.


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