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Working with Pina

by Ernesta Corvino

July 2008

In 2007 I began to serve as a ballet master for Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal. For me, working with Pina represents the continuation of a lineage born of the connection between Kurt Jooss and my father, Alfredo Corvino.

My father was a member of The Jooss Company from 1940 to 1942. He went on to dance with The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and then The Metropolitan Opera Ballet. In 1952 he accepted a teaching post at the Met Opera Ballet School offered by its director Antony Tudor and, almost simultaneously, joined the original dance faculty of The Juilliard School.

In 1959, he and Tudor were invited by Kurt Jooss to teach at the Essen Folkwang Schule that summer. It was here that they met the young Pina Bausch.

Both Tudor and my father encouraged Pina to come to New York to study and perform at Juilliard as well as the Met, which she did on a scholarship. I can remember being a small child playing in the dressing rooms of the old Met while my father taught classes and my mother worked in her office as the school’s administrator. I was fascinated by this wistful, rather melancholy young woman who seemed a bit too thin and always smoked. I asked my mother what her name was. She said, “Pina.” I was intrigued. Little did I know that seeds for a full circle connection to take place almost a half-century later were being sown.

Shortly thereafter, Pina returned to her native Germany and began to choreograph. The rest, as they say, is dance history. She became the Goddess of Tanztheater. By the 1980s, she was bringing her company to New York City, and one of the greatest admirers of her work was my father. He understood where she was coming from. By that same time, my father [Alfredo Corvino] had become a well-known authority on the teaching of ballet technique to dancers of all persuasions, especially modern. He was teaching at Juilliard as well as our own school The Dance Circle and guesting just about everywhere around the world.

By 1993, due to the rising cost of commercial real estate in New York City, it was time to close Dance Circle. Pina asked my father to teach a company class and by 1994, he retired from Juilliard after 42 years and became her ballet master. For them, a circle had completed. My father spent the next eleven years, until his death, happily meeting the company all over the globe and coming home to regale us with stories of his work and play with them.

I feel privileged to carry on the work that my father and Pina have valued so highly and that enables Pina and her dancers to realize the creation and execution of their choreographic and artistic ideas.

Many people are surprised to find out that the company training class is in classical ballet. Pina’s dancers come from backgrounds that include both modern and ballet training. They are strong dancers who perform physically demanding material whether it is solos based on their own personal style or classic Bausch choreography such as Le Sacre du Printemps. Add to this, feats such as climbing up and down scenery backwards, balancing an apple on one’s head while dancing, or doing all of the above while torrents of water rain down upon the stage and you marvel at their skill. When you see a Bausch piece that synthesizes so many dance styles and theatrical elements including use of the voice, you realize that all of it is presented in a very refined “classic” manner and that these dancers are first and foremost dancers who have very solid techniques. Although the end result has a look of spontaneity born of inspiration in the moment, everything is carefully thought out and rehearsed over and over again for accuracy and precision.

During rehearsal periods, the ballet master gives only training class in the morning for approximately one and one-half hours. Then the dancers go on to rehearse all day with a break in the afternoon. Company training class is not merely a “warm-up”. It is a time for the ballet master to lead the dancers forth in a process of discovery so that they may deepen their knowledge of their bodies as well as sharpen their technique.

When Pina and her dancers are creating a new work, no one, not even the ballet master or the dancers who are not in that particular piece, is permitted to view the rehearsals. She demands complete privacy, and the work is not seen by others who are not directly involved until the premiere. Even then, she will most likely make changes, omissions, and additions until she is satisfied.

When performances are in progress, the company will continue to take training class in the morning followed by technical rehearsals and/or spacing and clean-up rehearsals during the afternoon. The ballet master then gives a simple half hour warm-up one hour before curtain. As their “trainer,” I am very careful not to tire them out or to overwork certain muscle groups. Depending on what they must perform, I tailor the warm-up accordingly.

When I was first contracted to train the company, they were rehearsing and performing Le Sacre du Printemps in Wuppertal. I asked one of the dancers if he found the choreography difficult and he replied, “It demands respect!”

Respect seems to be a consistent theme in the company. The dancers respect one another and, of course, they respect Pina. But perhaps more startling is the way Pina respects her dancers. This mutual respect spawns a love that is truly unique among professional companies where the usual hierarchy inevitably breeds competition and jealousy. Happily, these traits seem to be lacking here. Everyone, including Pina, gives their all, straight from the heart, without self-consciousness or artifice. It is truly amazing to behold and it certainly comes across in performance.

When the company last appeared at BAM, Pina and several of her dancers came to my house for dinner. They were all so sweet. My father had recently passed away and although they missed him and were sad, they seemed glad to be spending time in his home with his family. Pina’s energy was so gentle and loving. Through puffs on her cigarette, she spoke softly and alternately asked thoughtful questions or just listened and observed. Sometimes she giggled at the memory of something my father had done or said. Sometimes she just looked sad. I was intrigued.

When I began to work with Pina, I didn’t expect her demeanor to be the same as it was at my house that evening, but it is. Whether she’s rehearsing the company or traveling on tour, she is always genuinely Pina, smoking her cigarette, speaking softly, giggling from time to time, but always observing, always being loving. I was, and still am, intrigued.

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