Generations of dancers have been influenced by the German choreographer Pina Bausch.
She was known for combining potent drama and dreamlike movement to create a powerful form of dance theater.
Her sometimes surreal sense of theatricality was often performed on elaborate, unusual sets that incorporated natural elements like dirt and flowers.
Now, a new dance theater presentation pays tribute to Bausch, who died in 2009.
The project, called Dear Pina was brought to life by Vermont choreographer Hannah Dennison.
The piece will be presented at the Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms.
The first impression one gets of Dear Pina is not from the performance, but the space.
Built in the late 19th century, the Breeding Barn is a huge architectural triumph, four stories high and longer than a football field.
Natural light streams in from above, and barn swallows and pigeons fly overhead.
It’s a building with history, and sets a gothic tone for a run-through of Dear Pina.
An electronic score fills the space, as the 35 dancers spread out across the vast dirt floor.
For the next hour and a half, the audience is treated to a series of ghostly vignettes inspired by the collected works of Pina Bausch.
The dancers run as a group at top speed through the barn.
They break off into individual tableaus, and engage in repetitive motion.
They form a line with old-fashioned suitcases, and await their turns for a dance competition.
An elderly couple in over-sized shoes shuffles across the barn in slow-motion, finally taking their seats in a second floor alcove.
The performance is a tour de force for this collection of Vermont dancers, one moment arcing and twisting their bodies, the next engaged in propulsive aerobic motion.
Paul Besaw of Burlington is a member of the Dear Pina ensemble, and teaches dance at the University of Vermont.
He says Bausch is a figure who quickly stood out among her contemporaries in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Besaw says she came into this realm of creating dance theater at a time when it was very new, and then she developed a very particular take at how to use really trained dancers in really fantastic ways that weren’t so much about technical virtuosity.
Lida Winfield of Burlington is also a member of the ensemble.
Winfield says that Hannah Dennison has distilled the essence of Pina Bausch choreography, including working with a large ensemble.
According to Winfield, Bausch was also interested in repetition, and in that way her work was somewhat relentless, ‘we’re gonna repeat the same thing over and over again until we are exhausted and sweaty and see how that changes the movement and how that experience is both for dancers as well as for audience members’.
Winfield says the working in the vast expanse of the Breeding Barn is a liberating experience that presents its own set of challenges.
Winfield says, "Part of it is just our physicality, right, that there’s a lot of running, need to really cover your ground and get to where you need to be, and also just to remember that there are viewers, even when you’re 70 feet away from them, that they can see you and that your presence needs to be big and tall and clear"
Director and co-choreographer Hannah Dennison says that Dear Pina is the piece she has been waiting her whole life to create.
She says Bausch would come to rehearsals with reflective questions for her dancers, a practice that was widely copied.
Dennison began her project in much the same way.
She says, "They were delving into their own selves, and when you went to see a piece of hers, it was based in relationships that a lot of what went on onstage was about the people who were in the piece"
Dennison says the process added a level of emotional color to Bausch’s work that wasn’t often seen at that time.
And she notes that while Bausch rarely worked in non-traditional spaces, the Breeding Barn is an ideal space to represent her spirit.
Dennison says, "Most what I was after with this space was the scale of it, so that it would contain the scale of what I remember and experienced her work to be like".
The electronic score for Dear Pina was written by Dennison’s partner, Dave Severance.
The costumes are meant to evoke the interiors of the barn, utilizing browns, grays and cream colors.
According to Dennison, "This piece is a little bit of another world. We’re honoring someone who’s in another world now, so the colors, we felt like it was important for us to be like a cloud, or like a ghost".
It’s clear that Dear Pina is meant to summon specters of past lives.
But Dennison says that Bausch’s work was large and open enough to evoke very personal reactions, and she hopes that her creation has the same affect.
Dennison says, "You could come and see it and have your own experience and I could come and see it and have my own experience, and if we compared notes afterwards, it would be different, but we would still have a strong visceral kinetic emotional experience seeing the work"
The experience of watching Dear Pina involves a large number of intertwining elements: the dancers, the music, the setting, the birds, and indeed, the implied histories of the audience and the space.
And if there are ghosts in the Breeding Barn, they too will enjoy sharing an evening with the spirit of Pina Bausch.
Dear Pina will be performed June 25th through the 30th at the Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms.