St James Theatre 2, Wellington

17/03/2016 - 20/03/2016

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2016

Production Details

Madonna and St Vincent are fans. So was David Bowie. Actor Alan Rickman said she “pins you to your seat. It’s like she’s connected to your bloodstream or something”. 

Pina Bausch was the “high priestess of dance theatre” (The Guardian). Now, for the first time, you can experience her work live on stage in New Zealand – and discover for yourself why it inspires such devotion.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, the company Bausch led until her death in 2009, will perform two of her signature creations, Café Müller (1978) and The Rite of Spring (1975), each full of emotion and intensity that aims straight for the heart.

Set to the music of Henry Purcell, the first half of this “astonishing pairing” (The Guardian) is Café Müller, a take on Bausch’s recurring theme of strained relationships that is quieter and more intimate than the work that follows.

According to choreographer Matthew Bourne, the second half of this pairing is “the only true masterpiece” ever set to Stravinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring ballet score. In Bausch’s hands, the music soundtracks a spectacular study in primitivism, with the sexes confronting each other on a stage covered in soil and the 29 dancers streaked with sweat and dirt by the end of their performance.

Presented in memory of Sir John Todd, dance lover and Festival Patron (1927 — 2015).


New Zealand Herald feature on Pina Bausch. 

The Wonder Woman of Wuppertal in ARTicle.

Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Fernando Suels Mendoza on what he learned from Pina Bausch, in The Guardian.


Dance-theatre , Dance , Contemporary dance ,

1hr 45mins (inc 20min interval)


Review by Ann Hunt 19th Mar 2016

There is only one word to describe this performance and that is unforgettable. The power and beauty of these works particularly that of Rite of Spring, sear indelible images in our minds.

Since Pina Bausch’s death in 2009, the Company, under the Artistic Direction of Lutz Forster, has continued to perform her repertoire, and understandably. It is hard to believe that these two works, Café Muller and Rite of Spring were first produced in 1978 and 1975 respectively.

They are just as relevant, moving and powerful today as they would have been then, in some ways, perhaps more so. [More]


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Living works of performance history, here in Wellington

Review by Sam Trubridge 19th Mar 2016

My first experience of Pina Bausch’s work was Masurca Fogo in London. I was ushering at Sadler’s Wells for the season and would see her sitting at the back of the stalls every night, alone, with her long expressive fingers steepled in front of her or folded carefully in her lap. She was courteous to the people that approached her, but remained intent upon the stage, and upon her art, with her gaze lost in that distant space of expression and movement. This year’s NZ Festival programme is crowned with a fantastic double bill of two works that have defined this extraordinary choreographer’s career and changed contemporary dance with her unique choreographic style. Her ‘dance-theatre’ is everywhere now, but when these works were made in the 1970’s, dance was (in the words of critic Keith Watson) ‘a world still trapped in lycra and tutus’.

Café Müller (1978) was mythologised by Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodovar in Talk To Her (2002) where the lead character describes the opening mise-en-scene: a stage full of chairs, a woman dancing with her eyes closed, and a man desperately clearing chairs away from her as she moves around the space. It is a living piece of performance history: an amazing dance between a sleep-walking body and the chaos around her. For her the stage is an empty space of expressive action and emotional turmoil as she sweeps the space with her long wide movements, but for the man clearing the chairs it is a space of danger to be managed; it is a dance of clearance, of frenetic making-safe and making-space, of stage-management-as-performance, and the task-as-dance which characterises a lot of Bausch’s work. 

These routines on stage speak of larger routines or cycles hidden in our relationships and our daily lives: unspoken, hidden routines that are concealed in the body itself. There are other iconic scenes like this: the couple whose tight embrace is manipulated by a third dancer, forcing the woman to become limp, and forcing the man to carry the limp body of his partner. When he lets her body fall, they immediately resume their embrace, and the dancer rushes back to reset the scene. Once again there is an interesting relationship between inaction and management in this scene, revealing hidden forces within our emotional lives. Other figures stumble around on their own journeys through this environment. In a role traditionally performed by Bausch herself one dancer does well to emulate the choreographer’s long expressive arms and fingers – gathering unspoken feelings to her chest, sweeping them wide again, cradling a thing, or stroking the air with the backs of her hands. This small cast of characters in Café Muller remain disconnected from each other throughout – even when in physical contact, when slamming one another against walls, or carrying each other in their arms – they do so with that distant gaze, like ghosts or somnambulists. 

I am reminded of Pina’s own gaze at Sadler’s Wells, and of her absence here – not only on stage at St James Theatre, but also in the auditorium. She died in 2009. In this work most of all I am aware of her absence, and of the bodies on stage dancing for a dead choreographer. And yet nothing about this work seems dated. It was an incredibly brave, ground-breaking piece that is still as moving today as it ever was. 

But there is a twist, a prescient twist to the composition of Café Muller that only becomes manifest today, here and now. It starts with an elderly woman in curly ginger hair. She scurries the stage throughout, on short fast steps, elbows slightly  raised, arms slightly forward. She weaves through the chairs – partly desperate, partly uncertain, partly seeking, or partly confused – she haunts the choreography with her pitter-patter of red high-heels. Then in one pivotal moment she stops, and takes off her black overcoat. There is an egg-shell blue dress underneath. Secretively, she curves her arms into a bras bas, lifts the heel of one foot, and sweeps the floor with it. The moment is over quickly: the woman redresses and rushes off before others see her. It is a very revealing scene, a little glimpse into a world before dance-theatre, and Bausch’s nod to tradition as she proceeds to change dance forever in 1978. And here is the prescient part: in the final moments, the figure in the long white slip (the role that Bausch used to perform) is greeted by this old lady in her orange wig, blue dress, and red shoes. One anachronism meets with another. 

Bausch’s style has been repeated so often and in so many ways that we cannot deny that her dance-theatre is a norm now. And so, fittingly, the orange wig and the black overcoat are passed on to this new dancer, this new figure: a mantle has been passed, and it is her turn to haunt the stage. She is now a part of the establishment, both the ghost and the godmother of contemporary dance. It may pass many by, but it was a haunting and moving moment of transition portended in one of her earliest works that she made.

During intermission the stage is spread with a thin layer of soil for The Rite of Spring. With both these shows, the sightlines from the stalls are rather poor. It seems that the view would benefit best from a slight aerial perspective – where the clearings in the chairs are more apparent, and where the disturbance of the soil on the floor is visible as another pattern in the choreography. Considering most of Bausch’s work this seems to be the case: all share an interest in the ground, the surface, and the plane of the performing space, whether it is strewn with carnations (Nelken), scattered with chairs (Café Muller), covered in water (Vollmond), or interrupted by a rocky landscape (Masurca Fogo).

Of all these, The Rite of Spring is the most visceral: featuring an inch deep layer of soil that sticks to sweaty skin and fabric, turning the beige slips of the women and the black trousers of the men filthy as the dance progresses. Made a year after Werner Herzog’s own career launching film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) this work features the same grimy realism as this story of a man locked away in a cellar most of his life. There is none of the romantic stylisation that ballet brings to this kind of pastoralism, it is raw and savage choreography from some pagan core of the European psyche. A red dress lies in the soil, anticipating something bloody to come; both the threat and the opportunity of this bright garment. In turn individuals each pick it up and examine it.

By contrast with Café Muller, this piece is focussed on the group of thirty dancers: divided into male and female choruses that spill across stage in waves of urgent movement. They are wonderfully synchronised, but never robotic, always full of passion. It is a very gendered work, with both male and female groups owing a lot to balletic conventions of movement – the more sinuous and serpentine movements of the women contrasting with male solidity, muscularity, and at times – a brutish grace that characterises this work. Together they weave, separate, and unite in dizzying sequences that recall the flocking of starlings or herding of animals. As one they leap into an embrace or sexual union that is perfectly timed, but always expressive and emotionally overpowering in its vigorousness and savagery. 

To a 1975 audience that was familiar with the more genteel traditions of ballet this work must have felt primal, savage, and brutal. The women lurch towards us with their wrists forwards, claw at the air, and double up around their bellies and wombs – protecting or striking at that place of production. These are not ballet bodies either – they are bodies of the earth, and earthy bodies, smeared with the shit of it – bodies with bald spots, asymmetrical bodies, ectomorphs, with sloping shoulders, hairy patches, and a concavity of the chest. They swing their arms as if bearing mattocks, striking the soil and their own flesh with the fervour of animals or religious zealots.

This is the third Rite of Spring I have seen – first Angelin Preljocaj’s (2001) naked figures twisting on squares of bright green turf, then second Kenneth Macmillan’s massive chorus and more lyrical work for English National Ballet (1962). But this is a Rite of Spring that must have been as affronting as Stravinsky’s original score was in its own time. The clusters of marching, grasping, twisting bodies have the same sinewy threat as the figures of painter Egon Schiele or printmaker Kathe Kollwitz. Perhaps even Van Gogh’s gnarly Potato Eaters come to mind. These are bodies enthralled by the land, captive to the cycles of nature, captive to their own physiology, and thus captive to their own sex in the way that second wave feminist Camille Paglia describes in Sexual Personae (1974). So they leap at one another, twist in each the arms of their partners, form panting groups, and finally single out an individual from amongst their number.

Changed from her uniform beige, ‘The Chosen One’ emerges from the throng in the red dress so that we (they on stage, and us in the auditorium) can see her dance her last minutes, before the sacrifice. She darts back and forth, thrashing against the fate that has been chosen for her, reaching from side to side, supplicating, gathering, and searching the whole auditorium with wide eyes for sympathy or reprieve. But we remain impassive, and so the fervour builds in her as the crowd around her gathers, ever more still and silent as her movements reach their pitch. And still she cannot reach far enough, or claw off whatever it is that marks her. The dress falls off one shoulder and a bare breast swings with each lurch she makes across the space. She does not rest until the darkness smothers her in one final gulp.

Pina Bausch is famous for saying “I am not interested in how people move, but what moves them”. This may be, but through her study of those deep emotional spaces inside our bodies and our cultures she comes full circle, and reveals a powerful technique and discipline to her dance-theatre. It transcends the decorative embroidered character of many dance forms to speak about primal forces that move us: moving her dancers on stage with such overpowering beauty and passion that we are left unable to express precisely how or why we are so moved ourselves when we experience it.


Editor March 19th, 2016

Thank you Linda - very odd. Fixed now I hope (although some of it had been previously noted and fixed). 

Linda Ashley March 19th, 2016

Great review! However, needs another prrof read as whole sections appear in duplicate. Not such a good look for what readers should find an informative and otherwise well-written review.

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