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The American Underpinnings of Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch

Wim Wenders’ recent movie Pina has opened up a wealth of discussions, panel presentations, commentary, and musings on the artist, as well it should.  As one of the best films on Dance covering one of our century’s great Dance artists, Pina is as evocative as the woman it portrays.

Like so many contemporary discussions of artists, Pina Bausch often is positioned to stand alone, as indeed she does in certain terms, or to be referenced as a purely German artist.  But Pina’s underpinnings come not just from her German influences but also from the strength and vision of some of the most essential North American artists of the generation before her, some of whom are omitted and unsung. 

The Fundamentals of Pina’s American Exposure

In Europe Pina began her studies with Germany’s influential choreographer Kurt Jooss, who also taught Birgit Cullberg, who founded the Colberg Ballet in Sweden.

When Pina arrived in New York in 1958 with a scholarship as a “special student” to the Julliard School of Music, she studied with some of the greats of the time, including Jose Limon, Alfredo Corvino, and Margret Craske, with Anthony Tudor and Anna Sokolow as the main fountains for inspiration.  She then went on to dance in the companies of Paul Taylor as well as the celebrated innovators, Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer, who had danced with Sokolow for years.

Paul Sanasardo/Donya Feuer Dance Company

Pioneers of Modern Dance

Sanasardo and Feuer were enormous pioneers of the day, exploring greater possibilities within movement and giving birth to a new form of dance as they presented evening-length modern dance work revealing movement’s relationship to the human psyche.  There was a kind of emotional theatricality here that was unique to the stage at this time.  The pieces were intricately autobiographical and often surrealistic, intellectual, and yet simultaneously synthetic and sensual.

Both Sanasardo and Feuer had studied and danced with Martha Graham, as well as with the equally great Antony Tudor and Anna Sokolow.  It was natural that their work would represent next organic octave of exploration after being caught in the cross-pollination of Tudor and Sokolow. 

 A Mecca for Modern Dance

The Paul Sanasardo/Donya Feuer Dance Company and their studio in New York became a mecca for dancers looking for deeper meaning in the artform.  Dance scholar Mark Franko has said that the role of Sanasardo and Feuer in the 1960s dance avant-garde was as important and influential as the better-known experiments of the Judson Dance Theater. 

Spreading Their Legacy

Donya Feuer left the company to work with Igmar Bergman in Europe, ultimately creating award-winning films of her own as well as directing stage productions, with special attention to Shakespeare.  She single-handedly introduced Modern Dance to Sweden where future contemporary choreographer Mats Ek and his brother, the dancer Nilas (the sons of Birgit Cullberg) were her students.

Paul Sanasardo sustained the company in New York, making new pieces and running the studio.  He eventually went on to direct The Batsheva Dance Company in Israel.

The Influence of Sanasardo and Feuer

The influence of Sanasardo and Feuer is more highly celebrated and felt in Europe, but the work was born in North America.  One can say that a great deal of the backbone of  Contemporary Dance in Europe was culled from the backbone of their work.

In this regard, the two were a vital and visceral influence on the evolving Pina, providing a solid underpinning for her own evolutionary and visionary contributions to the expansion of Modern Dance.

For beautifully articulated insight into this subject matter, please refer to the writer Ane Daly’s book, Critical Gestures.

Mark Franko’s book on Sanasardo/Feuer and The Studio for Dance, Excursion for Miracles,  is another essential for understanding the early days of modern dance in America.