NAC Dance: The artistic legacy of legendary Pina Bausch a big part of fall season

A scene from The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Pina Bausch. Photo: Dee Conway Lebrecht.

If you look above the stage in Southam Hall this month, you just might see the spirit of Pina Bausch. The legendary German choreographer died 2009, but her works and her Tanztheater Wuppertal company continue to be seen worldwide including in Ottawa to kick off the NAC Dance 2017-18 season.

An appearance here of this legendary company is a rare event, one worth spending some time on with the head of the department, Cathy Levy.

“For us in the dance world, and for us in Ottawa, this is a really big deal.

“Bringing the company to Canada was a big challenge for us. The company is always touring and the  demands on it are large.”

Bausch’s first visit to Ottawa was in 1985.

“I was not there,” Levy says, “I was living in New York at the time.

“The story goes that she came to the NAC, the house was half full and the audience booed. She didn’t have a particularly wonderful experience.”

Cathy Levy. Photo: Nick Lafontaine.

That’s unlikely to happen on Sept. 28 when the company begins three nights of performances of two of Bausch’s seminal works, Café Muller and The Rite of Spring.

Levy, who moves through the international dance world as part of her passion and her work, knew Bausch.

“Mutual friends introduced us. I met her later in her life. She died in 2009. I started to meet her in 2001.

When she started at the NAC, Levy says, she went to Wuppertal (which is near Dusseldorf, Germany) to talk to her about coming back to Canada, which she did in 2004. In fact, it was in Germany that Levy saw Bausch for the last time in 2008 at a festival of dance that she ran.

“I still go to Wuppertal when I can, once a year at least.”

The unique thing about the company Bausch created is that its repertoire remains in high demand.

One of the pieces that particularly interested Levy was Bausch’s work set to the music of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

“She knew that the NAC had an orchestra and we talked about having it perform with The Rite of Spring. But she passed away and we never got to realize that project.”

In 2013, the 100th anniversary of the composition that many believe changed 20th music forever, there was a renewed interest. It was not possible to do it then, Levy said, but she decided to “work on this.”

The orchestra, now led by Alexander Shelley, became quite interested about playing the music, she said. And the dance gods smiled on an appearance in 2017 when it fit the schedule of the ensemble and the NAC. The troupe is in Brooklyn, New York for nine days before the sole Canadian appearance.

So Ottawa audiences will see two of Bausch’s most important works, Café Muller and The Rite of Spring.

“It’s a very demanding program. These two pieces were made in the 1970s and weren’t, in the beginning, performed together. Here we are 40 years later and these works are still some of the most demanding contemporary works out there. And they don’t feel tired, they still feel fresh.”

The evening in Ottawa will open with Café Muller, which, Levy says, was one of the only pieces she danced in. It features music by the English composer Henry Purcell.

Then there is a substantial break while the stage is transformed which the audience is invited to watch. They will see the stage crew dumping a whole bunch of earth on the stage.

“Dance designers love to put dirt and other stuff on stages. We’ve had sand, we’ve seen dirt and  we’ve seen rice. … You can smell the dirt. It’s very visceral.”

Levy says these two pieces are truly the work of a great artist.

“These works were recognized as masterworks early on. I think is they have stood test of time. You look at it today and go ‘Wow’. The work comes with a certain power and authenticity.”

The choreography is no doubt aided by Stravinsky’s music which is revered.

“Artists love this music. One said to me: This music gets into your soul. You cannot get away from it.”

It was written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and joined a long list of masterpieces that have begun as music for dance, Levy says.

Of course this isn’t the only piece coming this fall.

• As part of the Ideas of North festival in October, NAC Dance will present Morphed by the Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Saarinen, Levy says, is a “hugely” important composer. The work features seven male dancers, including one who has appeared in the annual Face2Face festival, the Finnish Nigerian dancer choreographer Ima Iduozee.

• Speaking of Face2Face, this year it will be in October and staged mostly at La Nouvelle Scene on King Edward Avenue, Levy says.

• Also on the agenda is a performance of Swan Lake by the Semperoper Ballett from Dresden, Germany. This company is making its first appearance in Canada. Interestingly it is led by  Canadian, Aaron Watkin from Vancouver. Levy says the NAC is making a concerted effort to highlight Canadians who are working overseas.

• Another performance to watch out for is by the Israeli duo L-E-V,  Gai Behar and Sharon Eval. Their show is called OCD Love, which looks at love, lust and seduction.

For information on the 2017-18 season of Dance at the National Arts Centre please see

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.