Bringing Bausch

KONTAKTHOF by Tanztheater Wuppertals Pina Bausch, presented by the Luminato Festival at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Opens Wednesday.

KONTAKTHOF by Tanztheater Wuppertals Pina Bausch, presented by the Luminato Festival at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Opens Wednesday (June 11) and runs to June 14, 7:30 pm pre-performance talk by Lutz Forster on June 12 at 6:30 pm. $45-$125. 416-368-4849,

It’s been 30 years since the late Pina Bausch’s iconic Tanztheater Wuppertal last performed in Toronto.

In some ways the world is a completely different place, not least because the revered choreographer is no longer in it – she died in 2009. Yet Kontakthof (“courtyard of contact”), the 1978 masterwork the company is bringing to Luminato for four performances, reminds us that some things never change.

The three-hour minimalist work looks unflinchingly at how people relate to each other – in couples, in groups, alternating tenderness, humour and brutality.

“I think relations between people haven’t changed for centuries, and I don’t think they will change so easily,” long-time company member and current artistic director Lutz Forster tells me from his home in Essen, Germany.

Forster performed in the original production while still a student, and remembers the soul-baring character of Bausch’s concept.

“It’s a bit like performing in an operating room,” he says. “With strong lights on you, the audience sees everything, even the movement of every little finger, and it leaves you sort of naked. You have nothing to hide behind.”

The work has famously been re-mounted with casts of amateur seniors and preteens in recent years, as well as with the company itself. Choreographically simple but also ahead of its time in eschewing mere spectacle for a more detailed and authentic intimacy, Kontakthof continues to fascinate.

“The more I look at the piece and rehearse it, the more I see how brilliantly constructed it is,” says Forster. “It’s not just that it gets at all this emotion, but formally the way Pina constructed it is incredible. The use of music, the exits and entrances, the rhythm – she catches you, and then maybe there’s a moment of comfort, but only to prepare you for the next blow. She was such a master of form.”

Forster, who was Bausch’s friend as well as a devoted colleague, says he was shocked by her unexpected death. He was invited to take over directorship of the company in 2013, and has worked hard since to reinvigorate dancers and staff who’d also been left reeling.

But Forster is more than a mere custodian of Bausch’s legacy. His vision for the company’s future includes inviting other choreographers to Wuppertal to create new works after the current season, its 40th.

“I think the company is ready for it,” he says, though he won’t name names yet.

These possibilities are exciting – even necessary – for the artistic health of a company that might just as easily never have recovered from the loss of such a luminous and prolific leader. But Forster is adamant about its enduring commitment to Bausch works like Kontakthof.

“Pina’s repertoire will remain the nucleus of the company,” he says firmly. “There is great demand for her work – we still get invitations from all over the world, which we don’t even have time to fulfill. How could we ever give up this repertoire?”

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