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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pina Bausch's Kontakthof—Innocence Regained

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performs Kontakthof from Oct 23 to Nov 2 in the Opera House. BAMcinématek will screen a documentary called Dancing Dreams on Oct 27, including a Q&A with one of Bausch's best-recognized dancers, Dominique Mercy. Writer Marina Harss will moderate the talk; here, she recounts some of the dance's storied background.

Tanztheater Wuppertal in Kontakthof. Photo: Laurent Phillippe

By Marina Harss

“When I see them, I see myself,” says the choreographer Pina Bausch with a note of wistfulness as she watches a group of teenagers rehearse in the film Dancing Dreams. The 2010 documentary, directed by Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffman, chronicles the year-long process of teaching Bausch’s 1978 work Kontakthof to a group of 40 local kids between the ages of 14 and 18. Many of them admit to never having heard of Bausch until the audition. From the beginning, though, it’s clear that Bausch’s approach to art is, equally, an approach to life. “Dare,” coaxes Bénédicte Billet, one of two devoted dance captains charged with teaching the steps and the intentions behind them, “let yourself go.” “I don’t know if I can do it,” a girl responds, fear, embarrassment, and a slight resistance registering in her eyes and cheeks.

The setting of Kontakthof—which translates roughly as “contact zone”—is a dance hall, a large unencumbered space that at certain points becomes a battleground, at others a torture chamber, and at yet others a place of hope and attraction and nascent love. The music consists of sentimental German ballads and tinny tangos from the '20s and '30s. Men and women, dressed in party clothes, pair off, flirt, slow dance, mistreat one another. A girl is poked and jabbed until her eyes spill over with silent tears. Two women dance a sweet, carefree jitterbug in tandem. A couple undresses, with aching slowness, each staring at the other from across the room, giving full meaning to the expression “to undress with one’s eyes.”

Because the dancing itself is relatively straightforward—within the bounds of what is possible for regular mortals—Kontakthof has lent itself to intriguing uses over the years. It has been performed by a group of amateurs from the city of Wuppertal in Germany where the Bausch company is based, all of them 65 or older (2000). It has been learned by adolescents (2008). Both versions were filmed, the first by Lilo Mangelsdorff in a documentary entitled Damen und Herren ab 65 (2002), the second in Dancing Dreams*. More recently, during the season that followed Bausch’s death in 2009, Kontakthof was performed in London by two contrasting casts, one on the eve of adulthood, the other in the twilight of middle age. As The New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay wrote of the former, the “youthful casting often proves unnervingly poignant.” Judith Mackrell, of The Guardian, spoke of the “vivid and often disconcerting chemistry” created by the older dancers.

It all comes down to Bausch’s uncanny ability to draw truth out of her dancers. In the documentaries, one sees inhibitions fall, emotions well up the surface. The dancers are transformed. They seem to grow as people, to become freer and more fully themselves. The power of the piece lies in its universality: our insatiable, greedy, sometimes twisted need to be loved. As one girl says in Dancing Dreams: “the way we treat each other, that’s the issue. Brutality, naiveté… we’re all looking for tenderness.” It’s something we all feel, like it or not.

Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer and translator in New York. Her dance blog, Random Thoughts on Dance, is at

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