For Tanztheater Wuppertal, Life After Pina Includes New Works

Posted May 4, 2018 12:58 a.m. EDT

WUPPERTAL, Germany — It has been 45 years since anyone but Pina Bausch has made a full-length work for the Tanztheater Wuppertal.

“Half a century — just think about that,” said Adolphe Binder, the new(ish) director of the company, as she surveyed a slightly chaotic rehearsal scene at the Schauspielhaus, a municipal theater here. “Actually, I don’t want to think about it!”

Binder, 49, is the fourth director to run the Tanztheater Wuppertal since Bausch’s sudden death in 2009. Since then, and despite predictions that the company could fold without Bausch’s vital presence, the troupe has staunchly, and to great acclaim, continued to perform the phantasmagorical, epic pieces that gave the world a new performance genre: dance-theater.

Now, a fresh era is about to dawn for the company. On May 12, a new piece by Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou will open at the Wuppertal opera house, followed by another premiere, on June 2, from Norwegian choreographer Alan Lucien Oyen.

Both men were chosen by Binder, the former director of the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani, who took up the reins here last May. She isn’t the first to think that the company should create new work. Dominic Mercy and Robert Sturm, the team that took over after Bausch’s death, mooted the idea early on, but it proved too problematic at the time. “Which choreographer could you bring here after Pina?” Australian Bausch dancer Julie Shanahan asked in 2010.

But times have changed. In 2015, the company worked with four young choreographers to create short pieces that were presented in Wuppertal. Now, the full-length commissions (as yet unnamed) from Papaioannou and Oyen will join the Bausch repertory and be presented internationally over the next year. “We’ve come 10 years along the road, and we’ve found we have so much knowledge in us, and a lot of new energy,” Shanahan said in a telephone interview. Reminded of her earlier statement, she said that back then, the period immediately after Bausch’s death, the company was shocked and exhausted. “The decision to find a choreographer was incredibly heavy, because we were in mourning. Our whole life had been dedicated to this one person, and now we had this massive repertoire and no vision of the future.”

What happens after the death of a choreographer who is a company’s sole creative source, is a continuing dance-world preoccupation. Unlike the Merce Cunningham, who drew up a plan for the closure of his company and maintenance of his work after his death; or the Paul Taylor Company, which has diversified into broader repertory while Taylor is still in charge, Bausch and her associates had made no plans for what would happen to her body of work or the company she had directed since 1973.

Binder said that when she was approached for the job — she succeeded a former Bausch dancer, Lutz Förster — the search committee was clear that new work was on the agenda. “But if you are the one chosen to transform or change things, it comes with some suspicion as well,” she said. “It’s not an easy process for anyone.”

For new works, she said, she wanted choreographers who would connect to the DNA of the company and the spirit of Bausch, without necessarily copying her distinctive style with its dreamscapes of social rituals and private obsessions. “I was looking for people who are not in the classical sense choreographers but who can explore what dance-theater means in the 21st century,” she said. “People who were not bound to one genre, but who embraced other genres like painting, filmmaking, theater, philosophy.”

“My first response was: ‘Oh, come on!'” said Papaioannou, 53, who achieved a measure of fame after staging the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics in 2004. “But I soon realized that if life gives me that chance, and I didn’t take it, I would be on my deathbed saying: ‘Why did you say no?'”

Papaioannou makes large-scale, slow-paced, intensely visual works that draw from both Robert Wilson’s exquisitely stylized theatricality and Bausch’s sense of the absurd, layered with his own stark aesthetic and preoccupations — myth, religion, the human body. He trained as a visual artist and began to dance while at college; then he designed costumes, sets and lighting, in addition to performing. “At no point was there a conscious decision about dance,” he said in an interview before a morning rehearsal. “I was intrigued and started doing my own thing — and 30 years passed.”

Papaioannou said he usually took about five months to create a work but agreed to a much shorter period in Wuppertal.

How had that been?

“Terrible,” he said soberly. “It’s a nightmare for me. But I knew that.” His process is clearly painstaking. At an evening rehearsal, wearing black shorts, a T-shirt and orange trainers, he sat on the floor, wrapping huge sheets of paper around his legs and scrutinizing the effect, while dancers tried walking up and down a hill of black foam steps behind him. “Chaos has finished,” he announced when he was satisfied with the paper (which turned out to be a plastic fabric more practical for long-term use). “Wind, please!”

A wind machine began to blow across the body and hair of a woman crouched at the top of the hill, and a man’s naked body emerged from a crevice in the foam. “No, no,” Papaioannou called out, “it’s too dramatic — it’s a Greek drama!” His team laughed.

As the rehearsal proceeded, Papaioannou several times told the dancers to do less, move less. “He is very visual, very precise, very sensitive to timing and interested in how materials respond to movement,” said Barbara Kaufmann, a veteran Bausch dancer who is the rehearsal director for Papaioannou’s piece.

Scott Jennings, a British dancer who joined the company in 2012, said that the performers have had to shift away from using feelings or emotions to animate movement, as they do in Bausch’s work. “With Dimitris, you are trying endlessly to make images work, make illusions work, put your body in space in a super-detailed way,” he said. “Each person is so important for the big picture.”

The experience, he said, had meant getting to know his colleagues in a different way. “For all of us who came after Pina, we’ve been going into something that exists and others know the journey of those pieces. It’s lovely to start on a blank page with everyone.”

There was, Jennings added, much positive energy in the company that wasn’t there when he joined. “Even five or six years ago, the idea of new work would have been taken differently,” he said. “I think it was a feeling of stepping into an unknown place, and perhaps some fear about that.”

That fear was a concern for Oyen, 40, who is an artist in residence at the Norwegian National Ballet and also runs his own theater group, Winter Guests. “One of my concerns was: Will they want this?” he said in a telephone interview. But, he said, he realized that “if it was terrifying for me, it must have been more so for them. Some of them have only ever worked with Pina, and they must feel, that’s all I know. It’s brave of them, too.”

Beginning a weeklong workshop with the dancers in June in the Lichtburg — a former cinema that the Tanztheater Wuppertal has used for rehearsals since 1981 — was, he said, “like stepping into a temple. I felt that history was in the air, all these stories that had been lived in this room. And I felt constantly that there was an empty seat there.” Oyen asked the dancers just to “talk and get to know each other.” There was a bit of skepticism, he said, but they slowly opened up, sharing stories of how they came to the company. “It felt like uncorking something; it was emotional,” he said. “If they weren’t eager to create before, they are now I think.”

That encounter with the dancers is reminiscent of Bausch’s creative process, in which she asked the dancers questions about their lives and experiences, then wove the material into a potent mix of drama and dream. Oyen agreed that his process was probably similar.

“I didn’t know so much how she created when I came,” he said. He now realizes how much she has influenced him without him being aware “because she had such an enormous influence not just on dance but on contemporary theater.”

Azusa Seyama, who joined the company in 2000, said that for the Bausch-era dancers, who still number around half of the 35 dancers in the company, the experience of working with Oyen and Papaioannou was “an opportunity to learn something which we didn’t learn with Pina.”

The stakes for the company, and for Binder, are nonetheless high. As Oyen put it: “It will be interesting to see whether the world is ready to see Tanztheater Wuppertal dance something that is not by Pina Bausch.”