Open-Eyed in L.A. : Choreographer Pina Bausch takes in the streets, tourist sights, bistros and bars, soaking up the images and emotions of the city for a piece on America’s West.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

It’s 3:45 a.m., and German choreographer Pina Bausch, one of the most influential figures of the international avant-garde, is standing in front of an all-but-deserted Union Station. Transfixed by the building’s Spanish Deco facade, she stares at a pair of stately palm trees that reach up toward the moonlit sky.

It’s a distinctly Southern California image, or so it seems--for nothing is really archetypal in a place so marked by diversity--and that is what she has come here to find.

It’s mid-February, and Bausch, 55, is in L.A. to work on a much-hyped, newly commissioned $1.2-million full-evening dance-theater work about the American West, to be seen at the Music Center in October. The project, which is the first that the acclaimed choreographer has created outside of Europe, will mark her Tanztheater Wuppertaler’s first Los Angeles engagement since the company made its American debut at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.


In the studio by day and out on the town by night, Bausch and her collaborators have set out in search of L.A. and, by extension, the American West.

She has embarked without a particular agenda to find the essence of a place without a center.

“I don’t have a special idea, and I don’t want to be fixed with [one] idea,” says the intense yet vaguely ethereal Bausch, her wiry frame draped in baggy black clothes, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her omnipresent Camel dangling from her fingers. “How can I be, when I don’t know what it is?

“I’m looking for something I felt, or touched, or saw, or somebody I met,” she continues. “It could be something very simple--what happens because of the people who are there and how they interact. I would like to see, to learn, to meet, and then to see what happens.”


7 P.M.

A hallway outside a rehearsal studio,

UCLA Dance Building

Bausch--just back from a whirlwind visit to the Bay Area and operating on only a few hours of sleep--is winding up the day’s work with her dancers.

She, the 26 performers in her company and four other collaborators are in residence for nearly three weeks at UCLA (with side trips to Arizona, Texas and San Francisco), which constitutes the first phase of the process of creating the new work.

This trip is not the first time Bausch has created a work based on or inspired by a particular place. Her site-related works include “Viktor” (1986), “Palermo, Palermo” (1989), “Tanzabend II” (1991) and “Ein Trauerspiel” (A Mourning Play) (1994).

Yet on previous occasions Bausch has had more of a focus in mind before beginning the project. In Italy, for instance: “When we did a piece with Palermo, it was different because I was interested very much in music from there before they asked me,” she says, speaking in alternately fast-and-furious, slow-and-deliberate German-inflected English, with her delicate hands occasionally flying up from her lap to underscore a point.

This commission, however, simply came Bausch’s way.

“I don’t know if I wanted to do something [about the West]--it just happened,” she says. “Of course, it was beautiful to be asked.

“I [have] always just [gone along with] what happened. It was not like I planned even to be a choreographer. It just happened to me somehow.”

Actually, it happened in a fairly direct way.

Bausch was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1940 and began studying ballet at the age of 14, under innovative choreographer Kurt Jooss at the Folkswangschule in Essen. In 1959, she won a scholarship to continue her studies at the Juilliard School in New York, where she worked with Jose Limon and Paul Taylor. She went on to dance with several American companies and at the Metropolitan Opera, before returning to Germany in 1962 to become the principal dancer with the then-new Folkwang-Ballett, also in Essen.

In the late ‘60s, as choreographer for the troupe and then its director, she began to forge her own aesthetic, characterized by deep emotion and a flirtation with dramatic scenario--the beginnings of tanz-theater, or “dance theater.”

Bausch went on to found the Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1973, to an initially chilly reception from the public and the critics. Her work--which tells tales of postmodern alienation--made movement just one ingredient in an eclectic mix with text, sound, props, costumes and other design components. The initial result was judged blasphemous and in poor taste. What it was was iconoclastic.

The tide began to turn in the late ‘70s, however, and Bausch emerged as the compelling innovator that she remains, mixing classical and modern dance idioms with theater and winning notice as “explosive,” “to the limits,” “the world’s most influential . . . choreographer.”

11:30 P.M.

Book Soup Bistro,

West Hollywood

Bausch has just come from seeing a performance by jazz artist Cassandra Wilson at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater. Despite her lack of sleep, Bausch is beginning to get a second wind as she settles in for a dinner interview.

She has been reticent to do an interview--she seldom speaks to the press--in part because she finds it problematic to discuss what she is up to at such an early point in the process. “It’s difficult to talk about it at the moment, because it’s still a long time [in the making],” she says. “It’s very frustrating.”

On the other hand, this first phase is more free-form than most.

“Actually, it’s a very nice time, this time of finding things,” Bausch says. “We can still enjoy and laugh a lot and have a kind of humor about it. This is the only time, now, that we can still be so open. It will be much more difficult from now on.”

Typically, when Bausch creates a work, she begins by having her dancers do improvisational exercises. Here in Los Angeles, they’ve also done some improvisational work, partly based on the sights and people that have made an impression on the choreographer.

Along with many of the routine tourist sights, Bausch has been to a jazz club in Leimert Park, met with Native American scholars and developed a tasteful appreciation of California merlot. “Anything that impresses [me], I make notes about,” she says.

The dancers have also been doing their own research. “Each makes his own notes,” Bausch says. “Sometimes we talk about [what they’ve seen and done], and some people haven’t told me anything.”

Of course, they’ve all taken note of the driving. The endless driving.

“L.A. is a completely new experience because it is so big and you have to go in the car,” says Bausch, suddenly animated as she tries to convey her bemusement about an urban area without a widespread subway. “The experience is absolutely different in how you make schedules. You can’t just walk around. Everything is separate.”

Still, despite the traffic and other logistic hurdles, Bausch and her dancers have been getting to know Los Angeles and its denizens.

“There are wonderful people here and really different,” she says. “There must be many more, but where are they? You don’t see them.”

The memory of motoring around for miles on Westside streets without seeing much in the way of pedestrian culture is, however, only one of many impressions that Bausch will ultimately sift through back home in Germany.

“I will probably have to start to look again at certain things,” she says. “I will ask which kind of things are special and which are ‘No, it’s nothing special,’ because you don’t know at the time.”

1:45 A.M.

La Hacienda Real, near 9th

and Broadway, downtown

A mannequin senorita in fiesta wear and a monster-sized bull with flashing red eyes guard the entrance as you make your way down two flights of stairs, into the mirrored pit of red and black excess that is La Hacienda Real.

On the dance floor inside, a sea of men in cowboy hats and boots, with their Western shirts unsnapped to the mid-chest or waist, cradle dark-haired women in tight, brightly colored dresses as the band plays its polka-disco-tinged mix of norteno, quebradita, Spanish covers of 1980s chart hits and more.

Bausch sits at one of the tables near the packed floor, taking in the choreography of machismo. And though this world may be far removed from the L.A. known to most of the Angelenos who are familiar with Bausch’s work, it bears a certain connection to the German choreographer’s vision.

She knows bars well, after all. Her parents ran one. And Bausch’s memories of that smoky, dingy habitat were grist for the mill in her best-known work, “Cafe Muller.”

In that piece, Bausch herself often dances the main role of a sleepwalking woman remembering her childhood. Dancers reenact the scenes she describes as they slowly wreak havoc on a shadowy barroom full of empty chairs.

Similarly, “Kontakthof” is also about men and women in a club, albeit one of a different kind. Engaging in an archetypally Bauschian battle of the sexes, they attract, confront, repel and collide with one another in a sometimes violent, highly charged choreography.

As the name tanztheater implies, Bausch’s works are striking not only in their movement vocabulary but also in their dramatic mise en scene, standing in high contrast to the minimalism that ruled modern dance before she came along.

She put Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” on a stage full of peat moss, “Bluebeard” on a floor drowned in piles and piles of dead leaves, and she grew a lawn for her own “1980--Ein Stuck von Pina Bausch.” In “Nelken,” she filled the stage floor with pink carnations, and for “Palermo, Palermo,” it was rubble.

Bausch mixes in decidedly non-dance interludes, including passages of spoken text. Dancers may appear in ball gowns, business suits or rags. And in her works, the tragic coexists with the farcical in an undeniably visceral universe that is hers alone.

At La Hacienda Real, there is Bauschian tanztheater aplenty. She sits silently, smoking and watching relationships play themselves out on the dance floor for more than an hour without showing any sign of restlessness.

It’s not the steps of the quebradita that she’s come to discern but the passions. After all, Bausch is, as she has often said, “less interested in how people move than in what moves them.”

4:10 A.M.

At the valet stand in the

parking lot behind the

Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

It is the final stop of a long night’s journey, and a weary Bausch--living up to her reputation as a tireless and maybe even compulsive worker--is still intent upon using every available minute to understand more about L.A.

Consequently, a reporter is trying to explain why Hollywood Boulevard was blocked off earlier on this Saturday night, when Bausch and company made a pit stop at the hotel where she is staying. But the ritual of “cruising,” it turns out, is not easily translatable, especially at this hour.

Meanwhile, two men in silk PJs and two women in gauzy nightgowns and cozy robes brush by. They are on their way up, apparently, to a pajama party that is still going strong on the 12th floor. This cultural phenomenon is more easily explained. Bausch gives a knowing, if slightly girlish, grin of recognition at the thought of the shenanigans upstairs.

Bausch seems to be taking such images in, knowing, hoping or perhaps just trusting that they will all come together at some point.

“There are too many impressions, much more than you can use,” she says. “There is a longing to do much more, but you can only do a little.

“So much of [creating this work] was coming here, but maybe we have to go back to Germany, so we can react. Sometimes it comes out later. This is the difficult thing. I cannot promise anything, of course, except that I am sincere.”

That, and the assurance that the process is never an easy one.

“It’s always a disaster,” Bausch says. “I will go through hell. I will say I will never do a piece again, and then each time, of course, I do it again.”*