Stepping into the lobby of Islington’s Hilton Hotel on a sunny day in early Spring, I meet Julie Shanahan. She’s been dancing at Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch for over 20 years and is in London to perform the first full-length piece choreographed for the company since Pina’s death ten years ago. We meet to discuss the UK debut performances that weekend, marking a new era for the world-famous company, which has invited two guest choreographers to create two new pieces for the company of 36 dancers. She greets me with a hug, possessing the poise and grace that you’d expect from a dancer, blonde hair tumbling down to the elbow and silver bangles clinking against a leather jacket. We find a sofa to sit down on and start talking about Pina.
In the contemporary dance world, Julie is a distinguished member of the dance-theatre genre. Led by Pina Bausch herself, Tanztheater Wuppertal remains at the forefront of avante-garde dance. First challenging the notions of what dance could be during the dark landscape of post-war Germany, Pina continued to choreograph seminal works until her untimely death in 2009. Carving a previously unseen form of expression through dance, Pina’s form of Tanztheater combined elements of dance with theatre and performance theory in a one-of-a-kind interpretation.
As well as being described as “a pornographer of pain” by some critics, due to her work’s intense and resounding emotion, Pina’s ethos contradicted traditional ballet’s prejudices by welcoming dancers from all backgrounds regardless of age, ethnicity and nationality. Rather than hiding the physical impacts inflicted upon a dancer’s body (as seen in ballet’s stoicism), Pina made a point to emphasise the corporeal nature of dance. She celebrated the rapid rise and fall of a dancer’s chest, drew parallels between a ballerina’s feet and raw meat, and all in all devised an original form of visual language able to comment on society at large.
Her company Tanztheater Wuppertal has outlived her now for more than a decade and in those years, the company’s identity has undergone turbulent transitions. For a company whose repertoire is so closely tied to the genius of its founder, the two new pieces – Since She and Bon Voyage Bob (Julie is dancing in the latter) – spark a number of larger questions around the company’s long-standing identity. Namely, how will these new works be received in the shadow of Pina’s death?
Despite the fact that these new works are creations of renowned choreographers in their own right – Alan Lucien Øyen and Dimitris Papaioannou – the new dances have become inseparable from Pina’s legacy. Some comparisons to “what Pina would have done” are inevitable – but are they fair? As onlookers and critics, can we ever fully escape our expectations of a company or artist, and view an artwork on its own, in a vacuum?
Back in the lobby of Islington’s Hilton, Julie hooks her arm over sofa’s back while a vacuum cleaner whirs away in the background. We talk about what it was like to work with Pina. First hooked at 19 when Tanztheater Wuppertal performed in Australia, Julie joined the company in 1988, going on to develop several roles in Pina’s historic repertory. Today, as one of the longest-standing members of the company, she’s partly entrusted to pass down knowledge of the repertory works to the “new generation” of dancers in Tanztheater Wuppertal.
“There is a lot we learnt from Pina,” says Julie. “More than we can fathom. It was just the day-to-day things. She would just sit there looking at you, and you would always have to be at your most honest and always looking inwards yourself.” This was the starting point for the choreographer’s creative process. She would ask a multitude of questions, “questions that always brought you back to your roots and your culture”.
Over the years, Julie noted Pina’s questions in multiple volumes of books. These questions were often about enforcing introspection. “We were a reflection of her eyes. So if her eyes were deeply looking at you, you had to deeply look inside yourself.” As she says this, Julie’s eye contact is also piercing and present. She goes on, “In a certain way, Pina’s stillness created a stillness and a vulnerability in ourselves because we were really being looked at, and this also kept us honourable.”
Julie compares dancing on stage to falling in love, “because you are so full of this adrenaline and this awakeness”. When I ask whether it’s difficult to maintain such a level of intensity while dancing, she replies, “Pina constantly kept us looking for the truth so for that moment, it really does happen to you, you’re not reproducing something. Every action is like you’re living it for the first time.”
Despite the fact that Pina has been gone for almost ten years, her unique way of working lives on through the dancers who knew her. “With Pina’s work, once you’ve internalised that aesthetic, you embody it,” says Julie. When the company started improvising material for the new pieces she realised that “Pina is still inspiring us to have new ideas today, because of that freedom she gave us back then.” Open to all ideas without judgement, Pina never gave away anything when she asked her dancers those questions.
“You could have said something brilliant and you wouldn’t know. Or something terrible, which you also wouldn’t know. This was a huge freedom because once you start to give a comment, or a grade, people always believe that they’ve failed or achieved. And I don’t think that’s what the creative person does,” the dancer continues. “The creative person will try out everything, and give everything the same value until they instinctively know that’s what they want. The way Pina worked, she didn’t take the most beautiful movements to form a piece, she took what was needed to create ‘the whole’.” And in her characteristically thoughtful way, Julie compares this method to life: “You cannot just take the high moments and say ‘that was my life’; you also have to take everything else. That’s how it is, and that’s what a Pina piece is too.”
Since Pina’s passing, however, the company has learnt to adapt to a more verbal form of communication. Where Pina could tap into your psyche with a look and fabricate a world of non-verbal communication through dance, those who joined Tanztheater Wuppertal since her death have had to learn the repertory by proxy. Breanna O’Mara joined the company in 2014 and her experience in the company is pointedly different to Julie’s. She tells It’s Nice That, “It’s a necessity to bring new people in and with that, there’s been a lot of opening up, in terms of speaking.” Learning to survive creatively beyond Pina’s influence, the company has turned increasingly to words: “Speaking about what everything is, what our role is, actually having to use words to explain something and this has become more of a practice than it was before.”
For Breanna, “Context is important.” As a dancer in her late twenties, her experiences differ greatly from the post-war paradigm that influenced Pina. For her, “In the repertory, there is always a question mark”, when it comes to fully grasping every intention of Pina’s pieces. Though the new generation of dancers can tap into the feeling of a piece “through simple human empathy”, it is a whole other ball game when it comes to developing a new role in itself. Here lies the crux in the creation of these two new works. Rather than repeatedly watching old video tapes in an attempt to learn works from the repertory, the new pieces provide a chance for the whole company of dancers to be creative together and “on a level playing field”.
“I think it’s a very important step for us,” says Breanna. “Especially because we have these different generations of dancers now. Those of us who never worked with Pina, nor ever met her, are in a way relying on the information from those who did work with her.” For the first time in the company, Breanna has helped craft a role for herself in Dimitris’ piece Since She. Regardless of who’s worked with Pina or not, half of the company’s dancers have collaborated together without hierarchies.
“None of us had ever worked with Dimitris and none of us knew him. Suddenly, we were all on this even ground, figuring it out together,” says Breanna. With no videos to look at, the dancers were free to absorb themselves in the present rather than look back on the past, assessing what best suited the dancers in the room, and having the choreographer on hand to answer questions was also a plus. “It’s a completely different mindset.”
Though invigorating for the dancers to be creating new work again, for the guest choreographers Dimitris Papaioannou and Alan Lucien Øyen, it’s a slightly different story. “I thought this whole thing was a big trap for me,” Dimitris tells It’s Nice That. When he was first asked to choreograph a new piece by the then-artistic director Adolpe Binder, the renowned choreographer and experimental stage director felt “very insecure and intimidated” by the prospect of stepping into Pina’s shoes.
Receiving international acclaim for his creative direction of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games opening ceremony, Dimitris “could not miss the opportunity of working with the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal”, despite his intuition that it was “very dangerous territory”. He continues: “Like it has been proven many times, people cannot see my work, they can only see my work through the absence of Pina. And this of course is not doing justice to the work, or to Pina herself.”
As an “admiring visitor” to the company, Dimitris has no idea what’s in store for the future of Tanztheater Wuppertal. As Adolphe was dismissed shortly after she commissioned the new pieces, whether or not the company will continue to create new work is uncertain. Dimitris outlines the issues that face the company: “How long, and in what way, should companies that were founded by creators go on to survive? At what point does it stop being a real thing, but an echo of the real thing?”
For Dimitris, Pina is “among a constellation of very few artists” he reveres. He recalls his treasured few memories of Pina: “Sometimes, after her performances, I would end up at her table where she was eating and sometimes we would also talk. She would tell me things about how she understands her work that I will always remember.”
The Greek choreographer kept his distance (creatively, at least) from Alan Lucien Øyen, the founder and artistic director of Norwegian performance company Winter Guests, and the Tanztheater Wuppertal’s other guest choreographer. They’ve met only once, when they went for dinner in the midst of choreographing. “We secretly decided that we should be completely separate in our creative processes, as we were both suffering in trying to make it happen,” says Dimitris. “We exchanged gazes of ‘Oh my god, how is this going to end?’” Since then, he hasn’t had the chance to see Alan’s piece Bon Voyage Bob but Alan has seen his. “After all this is over, we can compare experiences,” he says, with a smile.
In Bon Voyage Bob, the piece choreographed by Alan, the Norwegian utilises similar methods to Pina, drawing out personal stories from the dancers around the theme of death. He “spent a lot of time talking to the dancers, trying to figure out what kind of piece [they] should make together”, he says. Together, they created a highly personal three-and-a-half-hour production from “their stories and where they are now”. It’s a fictional work “about loss and the passing of time and how to hold on to memories, and when to let go of them”.
Describing his version of Dimitris’ “trap” as “a bit of a Catch 22”, Alan also remarks on the inherent comparisons to Pina that have plagued responses to the work throughout. All in all, though, he praises the dancers for welcoming in someone they didn’t know. “With their experiences, they could be expected to be like divas but they were not, they were the most generous and kind actors and dancers I’ve ever worked with. It was a beautiful thing really.”
He continues: “They have a very, very, very unique experience working with one of the pioneers of this genre and this art form. They are so in tune, I was amazed at how I could set up a task, or a feeling, or a situation and they would carry it out without any reservations.” Despite the fact they’ve been repeatedly performing the same works from the repertory for the past ten years, the dancers embody “a realness which is just uncanny”. And for an experienced theatre director and choreographer such as Alan, he has “a hard time coming across any other place or dance company where its dancers can commit to something so tremendously”, a testament to their rigorous training and the Tanztheater school of thought.
“The fact that you can work with one dancer in their 20s and another in their late 60s, next to each other, literally moving together, that is unique and wonderful,” says Alan. Though he never met Pina in person, “I feel like she is a close friend because of the time that I spent with her dancers. They are a part of her and she was a part of them.” And fundamentally, these opportunities to create new works have allowed the dancers to “continue their explorations and see that they can still create. And I think that is a beautiful thing for them to discover.”
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.