In 1972, Bausch started as artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera ballet, which was later renamed as the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (de), run as an independent company. The company has a large repertoire of original pieces, and regularly tours throughout the world from its home base of the Opernhaus Wuppertal.
Frühlingsopfer, premiered in 1975, pictured in 2009
Her best-known dance-theatre works include the melancholic Café Müller (1978), in which dancers stumble around the stage crashing into tables and chair. Bausch had most of the dancers perform this piece with their eyes closed. The thrilling Frühlingsopfer (The Rite of Spring) (1975) required the stage to be completely covered with soil. She stated: “It is almost unimportant whether a work finds an understanding audience. One has to do it because one believes that it is the right thing to do. We are not only here to please, we cannot help challenging the spectator.”
One of the themes in her work was relationships. She had a very specific process in which she went about creating emotions. “Improvisation and the memory of [the dancer’s] own experiences … she asks questions-about parents, childhood, feelings in specific situations, the use of objects, dislikes, injuries, aspirations. From the answers develop gestures, sentences, dialogues, little scenes”. The dancer is free to choose any expressive mode, whether it is verbal or physical when answering these questions. It is with this freedom that the dancer feels secure in going deep within themselves. When talking about her process she stated, “There is no book. There is no set. There is no music. There is only life and us. It’s absolutely frightening to do a work when you have nothing to hold on to”. She stated, “In the end, its composition. What you do with things. There’s nothing there to start with. There are only answers: sentences, little scenes someone’s shown you. It’s all separate to start with. Then at a certain point I’ll take something which I think is right and join it to something else. This with that, that with something else. One thing with various other things. And by the time I’ve found the next thing is right, then the little thing I had is already a lot bigger.”
Poster in front of Schauspielhaus Wuppertal, 2008
Male-female interaction is a theme found throughout her work, which has been an inspiration for—and reached a wider audience through—the movie Talk to Her, directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Her pieces are constructed of short units of dialogue and action, often of a surreal nature. Repetition is an important structuring device. She stated: “Repetition is not repetition, … The same action makes you feel something completely different by the end” Her large multi-media productions often involve elaborate sets and eclectic music. In Vollmond, half of the stage is taken up by a giant, rocky hill, and the score includes everything from Portuguese music to k.d. lang.
In 1983, she played the role of La Principessa Lherimia in Federico Fellini’s film And the Ship Sails On. The Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch made its American debut in Los Angeles as the opening performance of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.
In 2009, Bausch started to collaborate with film director Wim Wenders on a 3D documentary, Pina. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011.