Famed dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch founded the "Tanztheater Wuppertal" in 1973. Now, four years after her death, the company is celebrating its 40th anniversary - with a retrospective and look into the future.
Two dancers from Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal perform in Paris' Theater de la Ville, Copyright: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
She had never planned to lead the dance section of Wuppertal's theater company. It took a while, but but Pina Bausch finally let herself be talked into it. And in that role, she transformed the ballet of a simple city theater into a revolutionary dance company, the "Tanztheater Wuppertal," which would become one of Germany's most internationally renowned cultural exports.
Now it's Lutz Förster, 60, who leads the company. He also had a hard time saying yes to the job. He was faced with a nearly impossible task: maintaining the company's legendary heritage while still making room for innovation.
"At first I completely rejected the idea," he said. "Not because I was afraid of it, but because I had never thought about it."
Förster, who is also a professor at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, joined the company as a dancer in 1975. Now he's managing its anniversary season, which includes a retrospective of Pina Bausch's work. The season opened with "Palermo Palermo" from 1989, one of the many pieces she created abroad. This one was inspired by the Italian city of Palermo and its residents.
Shock for Wuppertal
"I am not interested in the way people move, but in what moves people." Pina Bausch's most famous quote comes across in the work, which has been recreated by Förster. She was worlds apart from the artificial elegance of classic ballet and always looked for what inspires people - or oppresses them. And when dancers march like geese along the rubble of a collapsed wall, crouching on stage in an absurd position of mourning, then it is more about inner deformation than about impressive physical flexibility.
One day before the opening of the season, Lutz Förster doesn't have much more to correct during a last rehearsal of "Palermo Palermo" - unlike Pina Bausch. She had a habit of changing everything just before the premiere. But Förster works in a different way.
"I'm not a choreographer. I'm here to study the pieces and continue experimenting with them - to keep them alive. And to keep the company running," he explained.
Förster experienced first-hand as a dancer how the slender and shy Pina Bausch carried out her artistic revolution. She was persistent when presenting her ultra-modern approach to Wuppertal's conservative audience. She provoked scandals, like the work "Blaubart" - a nightmarish orgy of destruction, positioned in the program between dignified operas and harmless operettas.
"It was a shock," remembered Förster. "It took time until a different kind of audience came to see it - an audience that was more accustomed to theater."
The reception was very different abroad, says Förster. "That was exciting! We were unbelievably well received and we experienced such beautiful excited reactions."
The positive response had to do with the international audiences the company performed for: They were invited to the most important avant-garde festivals, where experimentation was commonplace.
But this was not the only reason why the world outside Germany's borders was so important for Pina Bausch. "She thought it was exciting to get to know other cultures," said Förster. "She was interested in people in general and so she was interested in people from every cultural context. She didn't need to see museums or theaters. She wanted to go to places where she could see people."
Bausch created a number of performances connected to places outside Germany: Palermo, Rom, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Saitama, Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles. And this also contributed to international success. "I admire Pina more and more. She created something universal that captivates people all over the world", says Förster.
During the anniversary season, the Tanztheater Wuppertal is also set to travel the world. European countries, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Canada are all on their agenda. Four years after Pina died of cancer, the company from the small town of Wuppertal is still so popular worldwide that not all requests can be met.
Dancers from 20 to 60
It is a curse and a blessing at the same time. The internationally known company could keep touring around the world with pieces from Pina Bausch for years without seeing requests decrease, but they don't want to look to the past forever. While this year's anniversary season, titled "Pina 40," focuses on Bausch's legacy, working with old repertoire isn't enough for the ambitious troupe.
"We have dancers that are 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 years old. You can't find this anywhere else," said Förster. "This is great and a gift in many performances, but it can also be a problem."
The company has to be rejuvenated with young dancers, but there is not money enough. Wuppertal has just closed its theater and it is impossible to recruit a dozen new dancers under these conditions.
A new artistic orientation is also a huge challenge, and Förster isn't yet saying publically what it will look like, except to express his goal of "finding a balance between keeping Pina's heritage and going down a new path at the same time, thinking about Pina's own beginnings and having courage to do new things."
To do that, political courage is essential. When Pina Bausch started her career, she was financially supported in a way that is hardly imaginable today. She was given the time and resources to convince the right people. Now the city of Wuppertal is overwhelmed and people say the federal government should also invest in the company.