Tanztheater as Art Form
by Marie Zimmerman
The importance of the arts and culture as a unifying element of German society is historically undeniable. Theater has been particularly important in Germany, especially since the 18th century when the country’s performance infrastructure was largely reformed. Since then, innovation in theater and dance has been welcomed, and it is not surprising to find that the amalgamation of dance and theater to create a singular art form has been a largely German phenomenon. Now, there are very few artistic boundaries for theatrical performances, enabling varied creativity. Specifically speaking, the lenience in regards to innovation has allowed for the creation of Tanztheater.
Tanztheater and its origins
German for “Dance Theater,” Tanztheater is a performance genre that focuses on the human experience and the ability to connect to the innermost emotions. Performances often tell the stories of personal reactions to major societal factors, and embrace openness, expressiveness, and multifariousness.
To understand the emergence of the medium and the motives driving such performances is to understand the German artistic society in the early 20th century, when Tanztheater originated. Visual artists were not the only circle to embrace Expressionism, a form that used distortion and exaggeration to create emotional effect. Dancers and choreographers embraced the idea that formal artistic practices could be used to depict a subjective emotional experience and a response to the objects and events surrounding them.
Rudolph Van Laban, thought to be the leader of the new approach to dancing, denounced the idea of beauty, the focus of classical ballet. Instead, he worked to place emphasis on the emotional effect of the performance on the spectator. By creating a form that included dance, theater, speaking, singing, chanting, props, sets, and costumes, he hoped to achieve an “all-embracing radical change in humankind.”
Tanztheater is a form with literally no artistic boundaries. Productions usually have no plot or resolution, but tell of an experience meant to provoke sensations, feelings, and memories. All at once, it can be baffling, transporting, and touching. In rejecting the “beauty” mantra of ballet, one might connect German Dance Theater with the anti-art performances of the Dada movement. Even to this day, Tanztheater, with its ambiguous and fantastic qualities, remains a counter movement to neo-Classical ballet.
Tanztheater experienced its initial influential run in the early 20th century, and was re-embraced by Pina Bausch, who developed a reputation as the “undisputed queen of European Dance Theater.” Influenced heavily by her teacher Kurt Joss at the Folkwang Theater in Essen, Bausch ignored the conventions of ballet and drama. She claimed she was “…not interested in how people move, but what moves them.” Important elements in her work were gestures, movements, music, costumes, props, and improvisation. For her, the personal surreal experience could not be achieved without improvisation, which allowed for the individual personality of each dancer.
In Bausch’s large-scale performances, all dissonant aspects combined to create a visual and emotional experience meant to connect members of the audience with their inner landscapes. Judith Mackrell accurately depicts Bausch’s Rite of Passage (1975) in a 2010 review:
Bausch…was able to combine movement of shocking visceral intensity with stage visions of often hallucinogenic strangeness…Some 32 dancers confront each other in thudding convulsive groups, ranked across a sexual divide. As they unite in great wheeling circles then scatter into a collective frenzy of coupling Bausch makes it appear as though they are galvanized by some savage, biological imperative. (The Guardian)
In Rite, Bausch covered the stage in mud, taking the performance back to a primitive logic. In her production of Arien (1979), she used water, which soaked actors’ costumes as the play progressed to serve as a visual reminder of the passage of time.
Bausch’s most intimate work, Caffe Mueller (1978), shares her experience in the family café during post-war Germany. Physical and emotional exchanges in the piece are brutal, and the plight of the people is obvious. It has been said that, “Long before British sculptor Damien Hirst was displaying butchered animals preserved in formaldehyde, Bausch was pioneering something close to the dance equivalent – the body under physical and emotional assault suspended in time and space by the framing device of the stage” (Ross, Difficult Dances).
The continuation of Tanztheater
From its genesis in the early 20thcentury, to the extreme and passionate interpretations of Pina Bausch’s company, Tanztheater progressed into a highly emotive form of art. Even now, a generation of choreographers worldwide continues to develop even more variations of Dance Theater. They continue to dispel boundaries of theater and ballet, and retain the cultural vitality of the form.
A sampling of artists practicing today include:
Sasha Waltz, employing interdisciplinary approaches at the Neues Museum Berlin:
Heike Henning working on crossover pieces and opera productions:
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus mixing psychology, film and acrobatics, working in Belgium:
Rosas danst Rosas (1983)
Jasmin Vardimon, using tongue-in-cheek humor to observe life’s mundane details in Britain:
Mackrell, Judith. “Pina Bausch Wuppertal Tanztheater.” The Guardian. 13 February 2008. Web. 22 January 2012.
Ross, Janice. “Difficult Dances: The Choreography of Pina Bausch.” Stanford University, Roble Dance Studio. 18 October 1999. Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts.