July 5th, 2009


The death of Pina Bausch

The death of German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch on Tuesday struck me harder than the death of Michael Jackson. She was someone incredibly cool, beautiful and talented, someone I'd followed and admired over the years.

I never queued for Michael Jackson concert tickets, but I did queue for Pina Bausch returns at the Paris Opera in February 1991, and when a few precious second-row box seats for Iphigenie auf Tauride (a piece she premiered in 1974) became available, Suzy and I sprinted up the baroque hall to the box office to grab them. Here's a glimpse of what we saw, and of Bausch's originality (note the "coughing dance"):

I never wore out VHS tapes of Jackson in concert, but I watched over and over again my tape of a Pina Bausch video, set in Wuppertal, broadcast on Channel 4 at some point in the late 80s. I never made a pilgrimage to Neverland, but I did go to Wuppertal, where Bausch's company was based, and ride the town's monorail, slung over its winding river, because I'd seen it in my Bausch tape, with dancers and a cellist. As far as I was concerned, Wuppertal only existed to give Pina Bausch a theatre. Simple as that.

Where did I first hear about Pina Bausch? It must have been from Lois Keidan, who ran the Live Arts department at the ICA. I was completely in thrall to Lois in the late 80s, and anything she said was good just had to be investigated. Lois had worked with Michael Morris, who said in his tribute in The Guardian the other day:

"Pina was well known for not talking about her work to journalists. She very rarely talked about her work to anyone at all. Whenever I went to Wuppertal, everything under the sun would be discussed around the dinner table but not the work. It wasn't that she didn't want to; she didn't know how to talk about it. She was not an intellectual. She was motivated only by emotional truth and was not frightened to put difficult and paradoxical feelings on stage, almost as a way of evacuating aspects of humanity that she was fearful of."

Fear -- total terror -- dominated my next exposure to Pina's work. It was 1998, and her 1980 piece Café Müller was playing at the Barbican. I had tickets to see it on a Saturday night, but on the Friday my opthalmologist declared that my cornea had perforated and that I'd need a corneal graft immediately. "What's in your stomach?" he demanded, hopeful that if I hadn't eaten he could perform the operation -- removing the front part of my right eye and sewing the front part of a dead woman's eye on instead -- right away.

I'd recently eaten, so we scheduled the operation for Monday, but I was, for the rest of that weekend, living in dread. Somehow, though, Café Müller lifted my terror, calmed and soothed me. The production seemed to understand pain, and time, and life. The dance lifted me completely out of my distress.

Pina's last week must have been rather like that; she'd been diagnosed just five days before she died with terminal cancer, probably caused by the "perennial cigarette in her hand". The 68 year-old went quickly and efficiently, I hope with a sardonic smile on her proud, beautiful face and her favourite Argentinian tango music playing. Tango comes from the Latin tangere, to touch, and Pina Bausch certainly touched me.