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Pina Bausch Company: ‘This Is Theater, and These Are Humans’

On the eve of the company’s visit to Brooklyn, I spoke with three dancers, from three distinct phases of the company’s 44-year history. All three spoke via Skype from Wuppertal, Germany.


Nazareth Panadero joined the company in 1979.

Claudia Kempf

A Yearning for the Work

Nazareth Panadero, 62, has been with the company since 1979. She joined, she said, out of curiosity. She had started as a ballet student in Spain, then moved to Paris, where she discovered the contemporary and experimental dance scene. There, she saw Bausch’s company perform “Blaubart” (1977). She found that she wanted to discover “the woman hidden behind this work.” She joined the company, unsure that she would stay, and has remained, with one short hiatus, until today.

“It’s not something you see in other companies to have dancers who stay for so many years,” said the Madrid-born Ms. Panadero, in gravelly voice familiar from Bausch’s works. “But Pina was interested in seeing us grow old. She wanted to see what a dancer with experience has to give after 40 and 50.”

At the Brooklyn Academy, she will appear in a role she has performed for over 30 years: a nervous-looking woman in “Café Müller,” mincing around a chair-strewn room in high heels, looking as lost as if she’d misplaced her keys. At one point she tries, ineffectually, to help a couple trapped in a violent struggle. “She keeps her emotions locked in,” Ms. Panadero said, “so she lives a little bit through the lives of others. She worries about them and projects herself through them.” It’s a typical Bauschian question: Who are we in relation to others?

For Ms. Panadero, quitting after Bausch’s death was not an option. “When she died, our yearning for the work and our desire for it to stay alive was so strong that it drove us to go on,” she said. “Performing her pieces made us feel as if Pina were alive, still with us. So, we went on.”


Tsai-Chin Yu joined the company a year before Bausch’s death.

Claudia Kempf

The Inner Struggle

Tsai-Chin Yu, 37, joined the company a year before Bausch’s death, though she had been a guest for two years while still a student at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Wuppertal. She had come to the school from Taiwan specifically to be close to the company, after becoming captivated by a video of “The Rite of Spring,” a 35-minute piece of unflappable intensity, performed on an dirt-covered stage. “That image just took me,” Ms. Yu recalled, “and I told myself, I want to do this piece.”

“Rite” ended up being the first piece she performed with the company, and it is the one in which she will appear in Brooklyn. She dances the role of a woman selected for immolation by a tribe of half-dressed, terrified, sometimes violent humans. In the final minutes she launches into a harrowing dance of death, filled with thrashing, convulsive movements.

How does she maintain that intensity? “There’s this struggle inside,” she said. “You want to do it, but you don’t want to do it, because you know you’re going to die.” After each performance she has to go back to the hotel, try to eat and have a massage, “otherwise the back muscles will be destroyed.”

Bausch’s death was a heavy blow. “I don’t know if I will ever overcome this grief,” she said with evident emotion. “It’s hard to find a choreographer who you feel you have a connection with, where you feel what he or she feels and the other way around.”


Breanna O’Mara, one of a crop of dancers who joined the company after Bausch’s death.

Claudia Kempf

Watching and Learning

The Brooklyn Academy performances will be an important milestone for Breanna O’Mara: On Sept. 19 and 20, Ms. O’Mara, 28, will be performing Bausch’s role in “Café Müller,” a spectral figure who stumbles across the stage, eyes closed, in a state of acute, suspended sorrow. This will be the first time the role has been performed by someone with no personal connection to Bausch. Ms. O’Mara learned the role from Helena Pikon, a French dancer who joined the company in 1978 and is still performing. (Ms. Pikon dances the role in the other Brooklyn dates.)

Ms. O’Mara, a tall, redheaded dancer who graduated from Juilliard in 2011, is from a Detroit suburb, “just a public-school kid who went to a local dance studio,” she said. When she arrived in New York, she had never heard of Pina Bausch or Tanztheater. Her moment of discovery came at a performance of “Bamboo Blues” in 2008 at the Brooklyn Academy.

“I didn’t know you could do that in performance,” she recalled, “I felt, this is theater, and these are humans. They were people onstage being themselves — moving, making jokes, screaming. And I understood what they were doing.”

When Ms. O’Mara graduated from Juilliard, the company’s future seemed uncertain. But she moved to Germany anyway and spent two years at the Staatstheater Kassel before auditioning for Bausch’s company. She joined 2014.

Bausch was a woman of few words, and this habit of silence pervaded the company when Ms. O’Mara arrived. “Pina had this culture of not wanting to give away too much,” she explained. “My first year, I was pretty much silent and watching.”

Gradually, though, she feels things have opened up. And soon, there will be new works to embark on.

“I’m excited to do new pieces with my colleagues,” Ms. O’Mara said. “I think it’s really important that the new people have a chance to create something with those who worked with Pina. We’re all creative people. We need that.”

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