What is it?

Tanztheater is a unique, genre-defying form. Not quite dance, not quite theatre -- definition labels are uncomfortable when slapped to its skin. To discover tanztheater's relative place in the world of the arts, let's look at its context, how it came to be.

It was a bleak scene: Germany, post the strict, Wilhelmic regime. Social, political, and economic conditions were harsh and answered by artists with extreme backlash -- protests by way of expressionism in theater and dance, frantic and desperate cabarets. These incomprehensible compositions of movement, sound, and costume were noble attempts at inspiring a humanist uprising in the broken people of Germany during and after the first world war. However noble, they failed.

Like a phoenix rising from its smoldering ashes, in this case of political-artistic failure, tanztheater arose from German expressionism. Each work indeed reflected the socio-political climate in which it is created, but more poignantly, celebrated the simple and visceral truths of human experience and thus, managed to be touching in a real way that has stood up to the test of time -- developing a quarter century after the second world war into the present -- accomplishing exactly what expressionism failed to do. The style explored not only anti-propagandist material, but the simple and true "stuff of life," which one need not be a university student, anarchist, or even a fluent German speaker to understand or to be moved by.

And so, whereas German expressionism has all but bit the dust in art history, last remaining examples being the now cult classic Nosferatu (1922), and the Fritz Lang movies Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), tanztheater continues to be propelled into the future, the style and its major players represented in film as recently as 2011, such as in Wim Wenders' Pina.

It is well worth noting that live performance mediums, such as dance and theater, are nearly incomparable to cinema, a medium designed for archival record -- especially in this discussion of German expressionism. The cinema work of Fritz Lang is quite dissimilar to the "desperate cabarets" described earlier, but they have been referenced here to give the reader an idea of the overall aesthetic and its place in what was pop culture in the 1920's-30's. Cinema by nature has a much broader audience than say dance, or even dance choreographed for the camera, due to its niche, art house appeal. *Here* is a really creepy, but accurate, video delving further into German expressionism's aesthetic more as one might experience it in live performance, featuring choreographer Mary Wigman in her glorious expressionist intensity.

The birth of the movement was political as much as it was human, and so rooted in its identity is its definite Germaneness. However, over time as the form has evolved, its scope has broadened to include the worldview of a wider European consciousness. Evidence of the style has even been slowly trickling into the fringe of America as it continues to evolve and adapt to its expanding worldwide environments.

Consequently there are many practitioners of tanztheater whose works differ from one another in many ways, but there are thematic interests and compositional strategies that many practitioners have in common. Themes include the power dynamics between men and women, searching for happiness, yearning for love, and fearing death. Tanztheater pieces in general maintain their political roots by reflecting the cultural and political climate environment in which they are created. Compositionally, most make use of precise and repetitious gestures, vocalizations, and geometric formations. Confusing the lines between dance and theater, spoken word is often used, as is the incorporation of gestural movement.

Pina Bausch (1940-2009) was a seminal choreographer of the genre, and essentially its definition. Bausch has passed, but her works live on in the form of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, in its thirtieth year. The company is known for appearing in films such as Pina most recently (2011), as well as Almodovar's Talk to Her (2002). Their breakout was a heart-wrenching rendition of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1975), which interestingly was one of Bausch's last more traditional dance choreographies at the time. Its raw emotional power and following wild success introduced her to the international spotlight and allowed her to pursue more experimental work.

Pina Bausch’s work often functions as a choreographic subtext to a tale that she intends to reconstruct and expound upon, such as the tale of 15th century aristocrat and serial-wife-killer Bluebeard. However, she tells her tale through movement analogously to an abstract painting -- without relying on linear story telling -- thus reaching past reason and harassing the psyche directly. Through her work, Bausch sought to reveal that part of the story that is untold: it is dark, psychological, and rife with strong imagery, violence, and repetition. Such as in Bluebeard, much of her work is about antagonism between the sexes; in her choreography she unabashedly works this dynamic to maximum capacity as she goes right for the crux of what may touch an audience, psychologically, in all the wrong places.

She famously said, “I am not interested in how people move, but what moves people.” But the truth is, she is interested in how they move. Many of her dancers are technical virtuosos, and she does feature solos in which they showcase their technical expertise. The technical virtuosity present in her pieces may be considered secondary to the emotional power they convey: Bausch values personal expression over technical virtuosity, but it is important to note that she does not eschew it. She has said: “Caressing can also be dance” – one may consider that this “pedestrian” movement can also be performed with virtuosity.

Her dance education included Juilliard, under big names in dance such as Antony Tudor, José Limón, and Paul Taylor, dancing in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, the New American Ballet, as well as training with expressionist dance and tanztheater pioneer Kurt Jooss -- most famous for his strongly anti-war choreography The Green Table (1932). She joined his Folkwang Ballett company in 1962.

Although Bausch had her early formal training in ballet, she departed from it violently. Whereas in the ballet, all aspects are formal, spectacular, and orderly anti-gravitational, Bausch's works combine formality and spectacle with chaos, casualness, and things of this earth. She does use elaborate and innovative sets -- but those very dissimilar to the candy cane vistas of the nutcracker. Bausch's stage might be a stark black background covered in fresh soil, a heaping mountain of roses, or a giant pool of real water, for example.

The costumes are usually simple and almost always the same in type: either unremarkable, normal daywear or somewhat gaudy eveningwear. Bausch insists that the costumes remain largely un-stylized, as she “does not choreograph for leotards.” The costuming is sensible, in keeping with much of the movement material considered foundational to her choreography -- “pedestrian movements observing basic human relationships of ordinary people.”

In fact, this casual pedestrianism has been frustrating to audiences, who want to see and are tempted by the trappings of a grand spectacle (i.e. expectations of a dance performance such as what is nurtured by the ballet), only to be confounded by dancers who are on stage wandering around and chatting, interacting as humans but not normally: they are still affected and aware that they are performers being surveilled.

Bausch considers these daily pedestrian movements just as artificial, representational and evocative as movement used in more stylized performance. She sees the performance of identities in daily life as similar to the performance of character on stage (and vice versa), in that the identity of person or character is that which one presents, and this presentation is performed physically– in gestures, posture, gait, voice, etc. Gestures performed in daily life resemble choreography in their nature as constructed series of movement to present character and ideas. Bausch’s choreography uses these gestures; repeating, stylizing and varying them, and adding variation to further shape them choreographically as well as enhance or transform their impact, into aesthetic form disassociated with spontaneity.

Utilizing casual activity in performance while exercising extreme attention to detail, she is providing the audience with a different kind of art experience. She is using the mediums of human bodies and selected objects to carve a sculpture of movement through space and time. If the audience can come to appreciate this, they will have a pleasurable experience relating to the activity onstage, on visceral and personal levels. But if they wait in the dark for what they expect "dance" is to happen, their expectations of what should be presented in performance are frustrated and they will remain uncomfortable, alienated from the work.

As an aside, all elements of a work -- gaudy evening wear costumes, piles of soil on set, sharply performed, pedestrian flailings, a piano that's just a little bit sharp to make that Kurt Weill composition even more disturbing for the score -- all these parts are working towards a singular aesthetic goal or vision and there is a word for that. Gesamtkunstwerk.

It happens to be my favorite word. My undergraduate training was in choreo-direction, and so in my world view, gesamtkunstwerk [guh-zahmt-koonst-verk] is my vision come to fruition. What a thing. But even regardless, what a thing! All parts of a beast or machine, working together, for a singular purpose. Unity in vision, unity in art.

19th century German composer Richard Wager (Ring Cycle) popularized the word in two essays back in 1849 complaining about opera being too random in its design. In describing his ideas of gesamtkunstwerk -- literally: "total work of art" -- in regards to music and theater, he essentially invented the modern musical.

But how do these works come about? From what corner of her brain did she pluck these compositions of virtuosic-pedestrian caresses, and how? Actually, most of it was generated by the performers themselves, under Bausch's direction. Whereas some might view choreographing as a means to an end, Bausch favored process over product. Her process has been described as “overall group chaos under a certain order,” a goal of which is to provoke unexpected experiences.

Dancers often re-enacted childhood moments, fears, games, rituals, and ingrained social patterns to create unexpected choreographic twists. Her method was to ask the dancers questions, often about love, such as: “How did you, as children, imagine love?” or, “When someone forces you to love, how do you react, then?” She elicited movement or verbal responses, and in doing so, Bausch’s aim was to make the personal and psychological, physical and aural. This process of discovery, surprise, and transformation was when and where "the art" happened; the product for Bausch was de-emphasized.

So there you have it, a condensed history and explanation of tanztheater and its major contributor. Worthy knowledge, as with the recent release of the film Pina, tanztheater, though rooted in history dating from the last century, may still be on the rise. Maybe next time you watch Batman Returns you'll recognize a design element or two borrowed from German expressionism. Perhaps you'll lay awake at night trying to remember how to pronounce gesamtkunstwerk. One might consider how a nation attempts to heal itself postwar with its art movements, as outrageous as these efforts may seem. I hope that you're the type to experience and enjoy art, regardless of what your expectations were going in, but if your the type to wait dissatisfied in the dark -- watch out for Nosferatu.