Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch returns to the NAC!

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Ensemble in Vollmond © photo: Laurent Philippe
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Sylvia Farias Heredia in Vollmond © photo: Laszlo Szito

Cathy Levy is Executive Producer of Dance at the National Arts Centre. She has flawless taste in Dance – and a golden Rolodex. As head of the NAC Dance department since 2000, she has seen thousands of dance performances across the globe, choosing to bring to Ottawa only the very best from outstanding dance artists from around the world. From intimate one-person shows in the NAC Studio to the largest and most lavish spectacles in Southam Hall, Ottawa dance lovers are treated to everything from cutting edge contemporary work to traditional classical ballets that have been thrilling audiences for hundreds of years.

As dance critic Paula Citron wrote in The Globe and Mail on March 31, 2013, “Ottawa dance fans are the luckiest in the country.”

Cathy Levy’s latest gift to dance fans is the fourth NAC appearance (in 10 years) of the extraordinary, world-renowned Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch from Germany. The company will be performing the remarkable Vollmond in Southam Hall on Friday November 7 and Saturday November 8 at 8 p.m.

The foremost choreographer of our time, Pina Bausch (1940-2009) sparked an international choreographic revolution. Subject of the 2011 film Pina by Wim Wenders, Pina Bausch was a force of nature: incisive, driven, observant, ethereal, a unique and wildly original artist. She virtually created dance theatre, exploring emotional states and the urgent existential themes of life, love, and death.

Pina Bausch crafted powerful character dramas full of wit and humanity – and sometimes speech and song -- with dream-like, poetic imagery and a distinctive movement vocabulary. Pina Bausch was an indefatigable dynamo who created almost 50 dance works of sublime beauty, unceasing energy, and raw, primal power. Pina Bausch’s deeply visceral dance theatre is acclaimed, demanding, and beautifully lyrical. It risks taking an unflinching look at reality, yet at the same time invites us to dream.

Pina Bausch is a legend.

Q and A with CATHY LEVY

Question: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch first visited the NAC in 1985, but then did not perform here until almost 20 years later. Since you have been programming the Dance season, the company has visited Ottawa three times (Masurca Fogo in 2004; Nefes in 2007; and Danzon in 2011). Clearly, this is one of your favourite dance companies worldwide.

Cathy Levy: When I first started at the NAC in the 2000-2001 season, I was pleased to see that I had three stages of different sizes available for Dance at the NAC – the Studio, the Theatre, and Southam Hall. Now that I could program even the largest companies, I made a ‘Wish List’ of the top ten companies I wanted to present, and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch was at the top of the list.

Q. Pina Bausch said, “I look for the possibility of making [the dancers] feel what each gesture means internally. Everything must come from the heart, must be lived.” Do you think that’s one of the reasons her work resonates so strongly with audiences all over the world?

CL: Yes, of course. The dancers are not just appealing or proficient in a technical sense, they have personalities, they have characters, they tell human stories, both in dialogue and movement. One of the great things about the company is that they keep repertoire together for decades, and the loyal dancers also stay with the company for a long time. While Pina Bausch created one or two new works every year, she also revisited and remounted older works, keeping them fresh and relevant year after year, decade after decade.

Q. I know that Pina Bausch is an icon and a particular favourite of yours. What is the very first work of hers that you saw? What were the circumstances?

CL: In 1984, when I was living in Vancouver, I attended the multidisciplinary Toronto International Festival, which turned out to be a one-time event. I saw a double bill of Frühlingsopfer (Le Sacre du printemps/The Rite of Spring) and Café Müller – twice -- and I also saw 1980. It was my first time seeing the company live, and I was dumbstruck by how forceful and powerful the experience was.

Q. Can you tell us what it was like to meet her for the first time?

CL: When I met Pina for the first time in a one-on-one situation, in London, I felt nervous and overwhelmed, as you do when you meet someone you consider an icon. She offered me a cigarette and I almost considered taking it, even though I don’t smoke! She was reserved – as she always is – and commanding in her approach, but she was also warm and spoke softly. She is remarkably modest and humble. We had a wonderful conversation. When I invited Pina and the company to the NAC, she was very kind and said, “Let’s look at that.” I was so grateful that she really took me into her world.

I visited her several times in Wuppertal before they came to the NAC. I was “courting” her, because the company was always busy performing or on tour, and they simply didn’t have the time to add many new cities to their calendar. I wanted to make sure Ottawa was one of those new Dance destinations. Their exclusive engagement in 2004 was a huge success, and Pina is loyal to people she likes to work with, so I’ve been very fortunate. Vollmond in November will be the company’s third visit since then.

Q. Any other fascinating Pina stories?

CL: We were delighted that Pina was already acquainted with Adrienne Clarkson, who was Governor-General at the time. When the company came to Ottawa in 2004, Pina stayed at Rideau Hall as a guest of Ms. Clarkson, who was very welcoming and generous to the whole company. Of course, we made every effort to create opportunities for the company and make their visit a successful one. Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal were very happy with their NAC experience, they felt welcomed and honoured, they signed posters for the crew, Pina engaged with representatives from the media, they were just wonderful. I was thrilled when Pina announced, “We’ll come back.”

One particularly special moment I will never forget took place in Paris after a performance. We all went out for dinner after the show, and everyone, including Pina, sang Happy Birthday to me.

In May 2014, I attended the 40 Jahre Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch Jubiläumsspielzeit (Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal at 40 Festival) in Germany. Many of her works were remounted, and new work by choreographers she liked was also performed. I moderated an onstage Q-and-A with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is a great admirer of her work, and I truly felt the presence of Pina Bausch in the hall that night.

Q. Can you tell us some of Pina’s work, where you saw it, and what impact it had on you?

CL: I’ve seen a lot of Pina’s work – in Paris, London, Wuppertal – and I wish I could see it all. One of my favourites is Palermo, Palermo (1989); I saw it in 2009 and I’d love to present it in Ottawa, but it’s a huge, spectacular show and it would be a huge undertaking for it to tour. I’ve also seen Pina herself perform in Café Müller and she is extraordinary.

Q. Vollmond looks amazing, with that giant slab of rock and pools of water everywhere. What can audiences expect to see onstage?

CL: Vollmond really is astonishing, and it has so many Pina Bausch signature elements: solos she developed specifically for some dancers, passion, humour, dialogue, beautiful business suits and evening dresses, and a really wonderful melange of music. And a few surprises.

Q. Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch seems to be going strong five years after the untimely death of Pina Bausch. Do you think the company will continue to thrive with the dancers and the repertoire available to them?

CL: Yes. I’m sure we’ll see some changes – but we’re not sure what they’ll be. The company is a close-knit family that has lost their matriarch, but they are staying together. One reason is the vast richness of the repertoire that is available to them. They continue to tour and sometimes add new cities to their regular schedule. They have also found that the film Pina has brought them to the attention of a whole new audience, a new generation.

Q. I’m sure you have many favourites in the company’s repertoire. What other works by Pina Bausch might we look forward to seeing at the NAC in the future?

CL: We’re discussing a number of possibilities, including Der Fensterputzer (The window washer, 1997), Água (2001), 1980, and her final work ... como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si ... (like the moss on the stone, 2009) for Ottawa.  The conversations continue!

Q. Any final thoughts?

CL: I just want to reinforce that bringing Vollmond to Ottawa in 2014 is a testament to the life and career of Pina Bausch and to the art world, not just the dance world. Her work continues to have incredible impact and influence on so many artists and art forms. Her works – going back to the first one, Fritz in 1973 -- are not museum pieces, they are still actively engaging audiences today, years or decades after they were created.

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