Pina Bausch Archives – Moving Data and Staging Networks

“When I look back on my childhood, my youth, my period as a student, and my time as a dancer and choreographer – then I see pictures. They are full of sounds, full of aroma. And of course full of people who have been and are part of my life. These picture memories from the past keep coming back and searching for a place. Much of what I experienced as a child takes place again much later on the stage.”

– An excerpt from the speech by Pina Bausch at the Kyoto Prize awards ceremony in 2007 

In these few words, Pina manages to give us an insight into the place of memories for a performer. It comes as no surprise that taking photographs and making videos was an integral part of her process of creating a work. She also encouraged this practice amongst her fellow performers. It is this impulse in her to record and archive that has led to the setting up of the Pina Bauch archive. This includes 300000 photos, 9000 videos, costumes, posters and leaflets, interviews with dancers, and much more. A part of this archive is now accessible through her website on the Internet. Pina Bausch Foundation has been working on the digitalization of these archives to make them accessible to a wider audience.

Such huge volumes of data, and it is only growing bigger. How does one begin to make sense of all of this data? Pina could hear the sounds in the photos and smell them – evoke many more memories associated with them and perhaps relive the times. When we engage with the archival material on an online platform how do we begin to feel them and contextualize them? That they are made available but how does one begin to truly access them?

“I once purchased a buffalo’s rib bone from Native Americans at a powwow in North America. This bone is inscribed with a large number of tiny symbols. I then found out that all the people who had acquired a part – just like I had – had written their address in a book. So this buffalo had spread everywhere. Together we all form a network in this way – like this buffalo that had spread throughout the whole world. And so everything that influences us in our co-productions and flows into the pieces also belongs to the dance theatre forever. We take it with us everywhere. 

The Pina Bausch archives are attempting to contextualize data by modeling it around people, places, and time. Each data object such as a photograph or a video is tagged with the people in it, the place it was taken at, and the time when the event happened. The costumes are tagged with the pieces in which they were worn and the dancer who wore them. In this manner, the archives are connecting all the data objects through common linkages and relationships to create a huge interconnected mesh. Each individual data object is in a way like the buffalo’s rib. While all the pieces of the buffalo’s rib will come together only in one possible way, this interconnected mesh is fluid. It can be connected in many ways, new connections can be formed, and old connections can transform. It is an evolving network of memories, people, objects, and events all held together around the life and works of Pina.

“Right at the very beginning, I had an experience I shall never forget: all the children had to lie on their stomachs and lift up their feet and legs, bending them forwards and placing them to the right and left of their heads. Not all the children were able to do this, but for me, it was no problem at all. And the teacher said at the time: “You’re a real contortionist.” Of course, I didn’t know what that meant. Yet I knew from the intonation, how she had said the sentence, that it must be something special. From then on, that was where I always wanted to go 

So what does this interconnected mesh of data let us do? How does it change the experience of the archives? It allows us to draw out multiple threads on the same universe of data, it opens up the possibility of creating multiple narratives. Depending on the interests and inquiries of the user, whether a researcher, a performer, or an enthusiast, it is possible to curate data and create collections that are relevant to the user. These collections can be grouped as topics and made available to others. For example, one of the topics on the website is ‘Focus on Pina’ which includes her speech, interview, and biography. Another topic ‘In Conversation’ includes select interviews with other dancers. Multiple narratives can be stitched depending on how the user lifts, bends, and contorts the relationships between the data objects to create their own meaning.

“The Folkwang School was a place where all the arts were gathered under one roof. It not only had the performing arts such as opera, drama, music, and dance but also painting, sculpture, photography, graphics, design, and so on. There were exceptional teachers in all departments. In the corridors and the classrooms, there were notes and melodies and texts to be heard, it smelled of paint and other materials. Every corner was always full of students practicing. And we visited each other in the different departments. Everybody was interested in everybody else’s work. In this way, many joint projects came into being as well. It was a very important time for me. 

Using the LinkedData approach to organize the archive makes it fluid not only internally but also in ways that it could connect to materials in other archives on the internet. It opens up the possibility of connecting to a universe outside of it by finding common linkages, and thus the mesh of memories and knowledge can keep growing and evolving by also attaching to new contexts.   

“The fantastic possibility we have on stage is that we might be able to do things that one is not allowed to do or cannot do in normal life. Sometimes, we can only clarify something by confronting ourselves, with what we don’t know. And sometimes the questions we have to bring us back to experiences which are much older, which not only come from our culture and not only deal with the here and now. It is, as if a certain knowledge returns to us, which we indeed always had, but which is not conscious and present. It reminds us of something, which we all have in common. This gives us great strength 

This approach to archiving in arts and performance can possibly make visible knowledge systems that are implicit in the body of the dancers but could become explicit in a vast interconnected virtual body built upon traces shared over time and space by a community of performers across the globe. It’s hard to tell if Pina might have had this vision for the archive but perhaps it was a gut instinct that she followed and a byproduct of the life she lived. 

“Little by little I knew… that I had to decide: do I follow a plan or do I get involved with something which I don’t know where it will take me. In Fritz, my first piece, I was still following a plan. Then I gave up planning. Since that time, I have been getting involved in things without knowing where they will lead. 

*The excerpts from Pina’s speech have been curated from this article: It includes highlights by the author for the purpose of this writing.    

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