Festival-goers will be treated to the work of a pioneer of modern movement, writes Bernadette Rae

German choreographer extraordinaire and pioneer of "dance theatre" Pina Bausch died, aged 69 years, in June 2009, just five days after a diagnosis of cancer, but the intensity of her creative force lives on.

Her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, performed even on the day of her death; members still claim to feel her presence in the wings and six years later the flame of her genius still burns brightly, in as much demand today and just as relevant.

Now, some 40 years after the creation of The Rite of Spring and Cafe Muller, her company will perform these feted early signature pieces at the New Zealand Festival on their first visit here. Excitement in the dance community runs high.

"She was the iconic revolutionary of dance and her influence was huge - and in a time when there was no YouTube," says Shona McCullagh, founder and artistic director of the New Zealand Dance Company.


Bausch took over the dance company in Wuppertal that now bears her name in 1973 and by the early 1980s, her reputation was so powerful "she was a magnet to anyone interested in the craft of choreography", says McCullagh, who was on her OE at that time. "Wuppertal was a pilgrimage we all needed to complete."

McCullagh and her husband, musician John Gibson, planned to conclude their European travels there. "We set out from Paris in our Kombi van," she says, "but unfortunately a Parisian who had consumed far too much beaujolais slammed into us and we ended up in a local hospital instead. So I am incredibly excited the company is finally coming here."

Bausch revolutionised the ways a choreographer could work with dancers, McCullagh says.

"She was a pioneer of drawing from a dancer's own experience of life, rather than just placing a choreography on the dancer, so her works, which are all intensely focused on human relationships, show an emotional rawness, power, sorrow and anger - the whole gamut of the human experience.

"She also pioneered a new integration of set and costume design, covering the whole stage in earth for The Rite of Spring, and in live blooms for Nelken, which translates as carnations. The image imprinted on any Bausch fan is of her skimpy slips and petticoats as costumes, intimately revealing the person underneath and commenting on the shallowness of so much human window dressing."

New Zealand choreographer Malia Johnston has never been to a performance of the Pina Bausch Company, but has seen a lot of work heavily influenced by her in which "the dance material goes beyond dance and into life in all its beauty, madness and darkness."

In 2011, inspired by a film made shortly after Bausch's death, Johnston created a section in the World of Wearable Art that celebrated the over-sized costumes Bausch often favoured to feminise her dancers.

"She was also a revolutionary in that she was a woman leading in dance at a time when that was a very male-dominated area," she says.

"Pina Bausch is an icon," says Francesco Ventriglia, artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, who will also present their new dance work Speed of Light during the New Zealand Festival and, days later, the Auckland Arts Festival.

"She opened the door to a new way of using the stage and the body, creating a new way of communicating with an audience. Her dance vocabulary portrays raw emotion with no filter; humanity is expressed through her movement." he says.

Lutz Forster, director of the company since 2013, worked off and on with Bausch from 1975. He was still a student when she recruited him for The Rite of Spring that year, and he became a permanent company member in 1978. A scholarship took him to New York in 1981-1982 and he returned there to become assistant director of the Jose Limon Company from 1984. He retained his links to Tanztheater Wuppertal, returning in 1987 to become one of its most outstanding performers.

In 1991, he accepted a professorship at the associated Folkwang University becoming head of dance studies - jointly with Bausch, until her death - of the Folkwang Tanzstudio.

Forster is one of many original members still performing in the company, although the works coming here require the powerful physicality of younger performers.

"Since Pina died we have eight dancers in the company who never worked with her and over 30 replacements in roles in different pieces," he says. "It is quite amazing how it still works. The more I watch it all the more I realise the intelligence in the works' construction."

Pina changed the dance world to the point that there was no dancing anymore, he says. Her approach was completely new and exacting for theatre people as well; new generations of dancers continue to be drawn to the company.

"More than 2000 applied for the first audition I held. There were 1300 for the second. It is such a great repertoire, people want to experience dancing these pieces."

He describes Bausch as unflinchingly uncompromising, supremely confident.

"She never gave up and her independence was total. If she didn't approve of a contract she simply did not sign. She continued for several years without a contract at all. She cared little for deadlines and premiere dates as well. 'We will just show what we are ready to show,' she would say, without a flicker of nervousness."

She was also constantly and endlessly fascinating to the people around her. She spoke quietly, patiently, never raising her voice but with an intensity that demanded total attention. At times that intensity became difficult to bear. Her life was her art and she saw other people's lives in the same light. The process within the company was constant and all encompassing. Morning class became rehearsal, became lunch, dinner, with the discussion continuing. There was no room, no time for a life outside.

"Difficult at times," admits Forster.

"Your work was her work, your art was her art. But those years before she died were also the best of my whole life. As an artist, Pina was a genius. Very few people create something so universal and so wanted so many years after their death. The reason for that? It is a mystery. Why do people still look at Picasso?"

What: Cafe Muller/The Rite of Spring, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
Where and when: St James Theatre, Wellington, March 17-20, New Zealand Festival 2016