Julie Shanahan was stunned and shaken by Pina Bausch’s work when she first experienced it at Jim Sharman’s 1982 Adelaide Festival.
Adelaide-bred, she told me on the phone from Germany, where she now lives, that she felt a combination of love and fear – love because as a dancer she wanted to be there, part of it, “but it was frightening because the dancers were giving so much, going to extremes.” Not long after graduating from Adelaide’s Centre for the Performing Arts (now AC Arts) Shanahan joined Kai Tai Chan’s One Extra company in Sydney. On her debut in October 1981, noted critic Jill Sykes named her the group’s “most accomplished dancer” in one piece, and she had come to Adelaide to perform with them in the 1982 Fringe. Now 53, she returns this month not as an awestruck audience member, but as a dancer in Nelken with the company that had made such a compelling impression on her, Tanztheater Wuppertaler Pina Bausch. Going to Germany, she danced in Bremen for two years before gaining the courage in 1988 to audition for Bausch (it turned out to be an all-day marathon), and like many in this unique group has been there ever since – some have been there longer than her 33 years, including Sydney-born Jo Ann Endicott, now 66, who was invited into the company in 1973, its first year. Meryl Tankard came home in 1984 after six years, and has had an in fluential career since, fellow-Australians Michael Whaites was there 1995-2000 and currently Paul White and Michael Carter are company members. For several years another Aussie was stage manager. The company of about 30 is a colourful mixture, but Shanahan says “Australians have an openness, and this is one of the reasons why Pina took Australians into the company – we have an openness, we do it with all our hearts; that’s something beautiful about Australians … What I find sad is that there are so many young people here with so much talent and so many ideas. What’s difficult is to do is what Pina did – to create and create over so many years and establish something. Most dancers have to stop dancing in their 20s and 30s – it’s not a sustainable lifestyle. That’s something that’s unique about Pina’s work; we have stayed here, and lived our lives as dancers.” Pina Bausch, a chain smoker and continual co ffee drinker, died of cancer in 2009 aged 69, so I asked Shanahan how the company is being run, and if her works are undergoing change. In typical collaborative spirit, two senior dancers, Dominique Mercy and Robert Sturm, took over, then Lutz Förster in 2013. On February 4 this year (after our conversation) it was announced that Adolphe Binder, artistic director of the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden, had been appointed the new director (intendant) from May 2017. That she has had no previous direct connection with Wuppertal is in line with the development of new repertoire. Bausch did not change her works over the years. Shanahan says the repertoire “stays how it is, and we reproduce it as well as we can – luckily most of the dancers stayed. … some have left, but they come back as guests to perform. [ The repertoire] became part of our lives.” But without Pina there, the dancers have to make decisions, see with new eyes so that they can teach the works to new people. “And of course,” she adds, “what the company is pining for is new productions because that is the only way we can continue Pina’s work anyway, not through the repertoire, but using our knowledge to create new things.” Clearly, the company is not going to become a Bausch museum. With 2015 came a signi ficant move. Three new works were commissioned from four di fferent creators from outside the company, all very di fferent, each with their own aesthetic: two Brits, Theo Clinkard and Tim Etchells, and an Argentine-French duo, Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignand. Premiered in September last year, the program was refreshing for the dancers, the audience – loyal for over 40 years – liked what they saw, and this first foray into the unknown was a great success. The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell approved, writing, “the company already have the original Bausch repertory to cherish; this new programme con firms that if they’re to have a distinctive post-Bausch future, they’re right to cast their net wide.” We can be pretty sure that Julie Shanahan will be a vital part of that distinctive future. Nelken Adelaide Festival Wednesday, March 9 to Saturday, March 12 adelaidefestival.com.au