Life as Dance and Dance as Life

Editor’s note: This month on Stance on Dance, several dance artists have been asked to share a pivotal dance experience that changed their trajectory or the way they think about dance. 


Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal in Cafe Mueller and Rite of Spring

Sadler’s Wells, London 2008

“It’s time to go, come on!”

I remember my mom calling out from the living room. I was standing by the big bay window of our third floor apartment, looking out on a group of people with hard hats. They were looking for the remains of a World War II bomb in our backyard. As a six year old, I had only a vague concept of war. But I understood the concern in my mum’s voice. So, I stuffed my entire cohort of My Little Ponies (to save them from potentially becoming an extinct species) in my shiny pink dance bag and followed my mum’s call. It was time to go to ballet anyway.

Fifteen years later, I found myself sitting at London’s Sadler’s Wells for a mixed-bill performance of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. After a 10 hour day at dance, my feet – throbbing with protest – still had to carry me on to the tube and to the city center. My head hurt. I hadn’t had a proper meal all day and all I wanted was to go home and sleep, because tomorrow was going to hold the same challenges of technique classes, peer comparison and anxiety about the future. It didn’t cross my mind then how many people would have happily taken my place in the audience that night.

Tanztheater as a genre never appealed to me much as a young dancer. I thought it was weird — all the disconnected flailing, stomping, standing around, snorting, rolling, screaming. That’s hardly graceful, I thought. That’s hardly dance.

When the lights went on for Cafe Mueller, every breath, gesture and thump woke me up a little more from the ambition of chasing my ideals — unreachable, untouchable, archaic ideals. That night at Sadler’s Wells, I learned about the difference between pretty and beautiful because I saw life as dance and dance as life, on stage.


The woman in white, apparently sleepwalking, stumbled through a maze of chairs, which a man in a suit quickly placed back into the proper position or hastily pushed out of the women’s pathway. The wooden chairs banging on the marley as they fell, the woman’s body dropping to the floor repeatedly from the man’s arms, the breath, the gasping for air out of exhaustion or desperation made the hair on my arms stand up even though I was sitting at the very back of the auditorium.

Bausch herself was scheduled to appear in Cafe Mueller. That night, Helena Pikon took her place on stage, but Bausch’s energy was still present. People all around me buzzed: Is that her? She’s here, she’s dancing, she’s in the building…


The second half of the program was Bausch’s Rite of Spring or Das Fruehlings Opfer. Dirt was flung, and again there was the noise: hands slapping flesh, the driving rhythm of the music and breath all foreshadowing the impending sacrifice. Bausch spent a couple of years in New York at a time when dance was practically oozing out of buildings onto the sidewalks. In ‘Rite,’ they’re all there: Limón, Graham, Taylor and Tudor, even Balanchine.

Besides the residue of learning from legends, in creation, Bausch often drew on memories from her own childhood. She was born in 1940 in the midst of war, and remembered taking refuge from bombings at her grandparents’ house in Solingen. Germany’s coal industry center was under heavy attack.

Half a century later, I stood in dance class as a kid wondering if our house was still standing or if the residue of one of those World War II bombs had enough explosive power left to destroy our home. Only a little later on, I learned the city I call home was where Bausch embarked by ship on her journey to attend the Juilliard School in New York. The old brick building in the harbor called ‘America hall’ fascinated me as a kid. I was curious about those people who got on a ship, left solid ground, waved goodbye to their loved ones with stained cloth tissues to seek something new in a different world. I later embarked on a similar journey to America to study language and pursue dance, giving in to my ambitions and insatiable curiosity.

Bausch passed in 2009 after losing a short but intense battle with cancer.

Today, people call her Pina. Pina once said:

Sometimes, we can only clarify something by confronting ourselves with what we don’t know.

Maybe dance is about more than the struggle with the ephemeral. Maybe it’s also about finding meaning in little connections, memory and the residues thereof. It can be about reality: the search for one, the ambition to put things to the test – to see if they’re actual. Sometimes, like that night at Sadler’s Wells, the search feels like rolling in dirt, running repeatedly against a wall or being perpetually stuck in a revolving door. La danse – c’est la vie.

Photo by Tristam Kenton