Genders revel in Bausch’s iconic ‘Kontakthof’

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

To watch “Kontakthof,” Pina Bausch’s masterpiece of dance theater, is to be like a voyeur peering from behind a one-way mirror into the everyday battlefield of male-female interaction.

The dancers, too, seem to treat the audience as a mirror, slicking back hair, adjusting bra straps, preening and pulsing with the forces that impel men and women together and apart — and which the world-renowned Tanztheater Wuppertal company will unleash at Saitama Arts Theater from March 20-23.

In a recent interview ahead of that visit, Tanztheater Wuppertal’s artistic director, Lutz Forster, spoke with The Japan Times — stating at the outset: “We’ve a long history in Japan. My first appearance here was in 1986 — almost 30 years ago now — and it’s always a great adventure, because the public here are very enthusiastic and understanding of our work.”

Although Pina Bausch’s work is revered worldwide as a key foundation of modern dance performance, it didn’t always meet with such enthusiasm.

Much of the controversy that was to later surround her work had its roots in New York, where the young dancer went on a scholarship to the renowned Juilliard School in 1960.

There, her tutors included the leading modern choreographers José Limón, Antony Tudor — with whom she performed at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company — and Paul Taylor, whom she partnered at the New American Ballet.

Then, in 1973, she returned to her homeland after being appointed head of the Wuppertal Ballet, which she soon renamed the Tanztheater Wuppertal — so combining the German words tanz (dance) and theater (theater) with the name of its home city to the east of Dusseldorf.

Although trained in classical ballet, Bausch had by then become focused on expressing dramatic energy through dance, and it was with this spirit that — regardless of some conservative critics — she imbued her choreography, whether for dance operas or revived German folk dances.

By the early 1980s, Bausch’s work was garnering international praise for its emotional honesty and raw appeal. Even since her death at the age of 68 in 2009, this has not abated — as Forster made clear talking about a recent run in London.

“The audience was enthusiastic, all the critics were enthusiastic; we were so surprised that the work was taken as being such a contemporary piece, with people seeing their lives reflected in it.

“But I think this is the great thing about Pina’s work — that it’s never dated. People make a direct connection with it and you don’t have to know anything; you just go and feel what you feel. It reaches to the heart of people, and that happens everywhere.”

“Kontakthof” strives to divulge the hearts of men and woman. The title combines the German words kontakt (contact) and hof (courtyard), and the set evokes a 1930s dancehall. There, revellers in suits or garbed in colorful formal dress prepare for their moment of contact with the opposite sex against the backdrop of a 1930s soundtrack courtesy of Juan Llossas, Charlie Chaplin and Anton Karas, among others.

Rolf Borzik designed the original set and costumes for the 1978 premiere, and his minimalistic dancehall still conjures up the stark divide between men and women.

Since then, however, “Kontakthof” has twice been reimagined by the company: in 2000, as “Kontakthof at 65″, with senior citizens taking on the role of the dancers; and in 2008, with all local Wuppertal teens making up the cast. Last staged in Japan in 1986, the upcoming season in Saitama is a rare chance to see a modern classic of dance theater of which Forster — in his fifth decade with Tanztheater Wuppertal — said: “It is such a gift to be a part of this work.”

“Kontakthof” will be performed in the Hall of Saitama Arts Theater on March 20 (7 p.m.), March 21 (3 p.m.), March 22 (3 p.m.) and March 23 (2 p.m.). For more details, call 048-858-5500 or visit www.saf.or.jp.