For Pina Bausch, homely questions are the stuff of dance

The art of Pina Bausch is based on questions. Some concern the nature of dance and theater. Where does one leave off and the other begin? When is intuition a better tool than intellect?

Other questions, more personal, she asks not of herself but of her performers. What do you do when you feel tender toward someone? What did Christmas dinner look like when you were a child?

The answers to queries like these are building blocks for the Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, a West German troupe that drew huge crowds and mostly rave reviews during its recent engagement in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's popular ``Next Wave'' festival.

``When we are doing movement or movement phrases,'' Miss Bausch told me over breakfast recently, ``I bring it to the dancers, and they must learn.'' This poses no great challenge, since most of her performers are trained in classical ballet.

When a work spills over the boundaries of dance, however, other inputs are needed. This is when Bausch starts asking the homely questions that nudge her performers, and her thoughts, in unexpected directions.

``I give them something to think about and to answer,'' she says in her accented English, ``perhaps by doing something. I may ask things from your life or your fantasies, or what happened when you were little. I look for answers that mean something, but one can't exactly say what. That's very important to me -- when you are touched and try to see why, but can't find the answer with your head.''

After many responses have been notated, Bausch starts piecing them together. ``I choose the parts that somehow strike me,'' she says. ``Then I move them around and put different things together. . . . I'm very aware of form, although it is not a form that has been learned. It comes as the piece grows. It's because of this that I can tell when a piece is finished.''

Bausch shows no interest in pinning explanations on her work. Some of her most compelling scenes are deeply mysterious, as in ``Gebirge,'' when dancers place balloons under a man's body while Billie Holiday sings ``Strange Fruit'' on a recording. ``We had some balloons,'' says Bausch when pressed for a comment, ``and as we worked, this moment grew. It was very small at first, but I made it into something very important.'' More than this she won't, or can't, reveal.

Although her work has received international praise, some observers (including this one) have reservations about its obsession with emotional turbulence and its inconsistent formal qualities. In this context, it's encouraging to note that recent Bausch pieces show a growing maturity and discipline -- away from the strained inventiveness of ``The Seven Deadly Sins'' and the looseness of ``Don't Be Afraid'' to the great visual excitement of ``On the Mountain a Cry Was Heard.''

Bausch herself sees the work ``1980'' as a dividing line. Before it, her pieces spoke ``about certain people and why they react as they do.'' Her recent work is ``more about the world and how we are afraid of violence and disaster.''

Her approach to this subject is constructive. ``It's important to hope that we human beings can still understand and make something that is good,'' she says, adding that she has created her happiest, funniest work during periods when she felt most upset in her life.

``A piece has very much to do with my personal, special feeling at the time,'' she goes on. ``We don't make a piece about 10 years ago. It's now. And it's about feelings that I have, which I think many people share as we all live in the world at this time. . . .''

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