Our University of Dortmund professor host seemed more than impressed. Klaus had not anticipated that as an American, I would have ever heard of the local dance troupe considered a cultural treasure in nearby Wuppertal. Not only had I heard of Pina Bausch, I attended her company’s U.S. debut as the opening act of the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. I refrained from telling him I walked out of that performance.
Well, I didn’t exactly walk out, but my party didn’t exactly stay to the end, either. Bing and I were at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium that Olympics summer night, with three Paul, Hastings summer associates in tow, guests of the firm’s largesse. My main role on the firm’s summer associate committee was to host the law students at various events for which the firm bought tickets to show everyone a good time. As a partner handed me a passel of these Pina Bausch tickets in the hallway, he told me we were in for a mind-blowing experience.
In the days before Google, we had no idea what we were in for. In one number, the dancers flung themselves into walls and crashed around tables and chairs. In another number, almost-naked dancers rolled around the floor in leaves. But what really did it for the three earnest young men with us was her company’s presentation of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” On the stage covered – and pungent – with peat moss, the dancers ground themselves into brown messes, tossing handfuls of the fertilizer into the air and out over the audience. As the first act wore on, Bing cast me more frequent worried looks.
At intermission, I called the audible, saying, “Gee, I’m awfully hungry. Would anyone object to skipping the second half if we just went to dinner?” Such relief I have never seen. Later over dessert, the summer associates got past their politeness to get into how weird they thought all that was.
From the reviews afterwards, we apparently were not alone in having had a hard time with finding the art in what we saw. I remember some critics considered it controversial, brutal, bizarre. But others considered her “Tanztheater” to be groundbreaking, influential, brave. At the time I was willing to concede that I didn’t know enough to appreciate her work, but I didn’t give it another thought for 15 years, until I was in Germany taking in the cultural, political, and environmental landscape of Pina Bausch.
Fast forward another 13 years, and Meiling was calling. Would I like to see this film which had just come out called “Pina?” Yes, I’d really like to, I said. I wanted another crack at her dance concept.
No walking out at intermission this time. The film, a testimonial documentary of Pina Bausch’s oeuvre, was riveting. In some part, it was incredible because of how 3-D filming was employed. We felt we were standing among the dancers on stage; I was afraid to breathe, as it felt as if I could feel them breathe.
I started to recognize works in the film which I had seen performed that Summer Olympics night, including “The Rite of Spring,” and I started to see things I didn’t see that night. I could see more of the mime and other theatrical techniques, more of the symbolism, more of the repetition of motion and themes. Watching the entire Achim Freyer production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and picking up some Bertolt Brecht in the intervening years certainly helped. And I could certainly better appreciate the strength and technical expertise of the dancers now having attempted ballet myself in the meantime. But I got the biggest thrill from seeing her dancers perform outdoors in places I remember from our Ruhrgebeit trip.
They were out and about the abandoned strip mines, in the reclaimed river bed, inside the steel factories-cum-community centers. They were in the aerial tramway and by the transit stations. What had felt so strange and foreign in 1984 now felt oddly familiar. I started to get it.
Sometimes life gives you a second, and even third, chance. And that’s a good thing.
P.S. Here is an example of the extreme industrial adaptative reuse we studied in Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord.