CN D Magazine

#6 june 24

The Lasting Impressions of Café Müller

Marisa Caitlin Hayes

Forever an immersion in Café Müller by Pina Bausch, by Boris Charmatz and the Tanztheater Wuppertal © César Vayssié

Surrounded by tables and chairs, Pina Bausch strides forward with her eyes closed, palms facing upward. Anyone familiar with Café Müller will surely have this image in mind, as the German artist’s 1978 piece is an icon of 20th century dance, one that has been reinterpreted by multiple artists over the years. As choreographer Boris Charmatz imagines a revival in the form of an installation for the 2024 Avignon Festival, CN D Magazine looks at the reverberations of Bausch’s masterpiece, which has carved out a special place in the collective imagination.

Few can say they’ve been to a café named after a dance performance, but nestled in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, café müller is a testament to the wide-reaching influence of Pina Bausch’s foundational work of dance theatre. Furnished with dark tables and wooden chairs that look similar to those designed by Rolf Borzik for the Tanztheater Wuppertal performance, you won’t find images of dancers on the walls, but rather an unassuming cocoon from which to observe passers-by. That’s precisely what Pina Bausch did as a child from beneath the tables of her parents’ café, inspiring the iconic Café Müller that debuted in 1978. While the piece is haunted by the choreographer’s memories, the performance itself has gone on to haunt the art world for the last 46 years and counting.

From stage director Katie Mitchell to filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, countless creatives have expressed their admiration for Café Müller, none the more so than artists who continue to expand and revisit Bausch’s original work in a variety of formats. At the helm of Tanztheater Wuppertal, choreographer Boris Charmatz is currently exploring the legacy of Café Müller in a performance installation set to premiere during the next Avignon Festival. Entitled Forever, the project features a rotating cast of 25 dancers who will maintain an ongoing performance of Café Müller for seven hours, interspersed with spoken commentaries. At a moment when the concept of the body as archive is gaining greater visibility worldwide, artistic research at the intersection of memory, perception, and movement is flourishing. But what is it precisely about Café Müller that fuels the artistic imagination?

Forever an immersion in Café Müller by Pina Bausch, by Boris Charmatz and the Tanztheater Wuppertal © César Vayssié

For multiple creators, the performance’s theme of sight has been formative. Who can forget the role that Bausch originated? Performed with closed eyes and outstretched arms, upturned fingers highlight how other parts of the body perceive. These gestures inspired Federico Fellini to cast Bausch as a blind princess in his fictional film, And the Ship Sails On (1982). In the Italian filmmaker’s feature, Bausch’s character is so attuned to her senses that even without sight, she distinguishes colors through hearing. Similarly, for Swiss choreographer Nicole Seiler, the relationship between sound and image is central. “Don’t we say that we can also hear with the eyes and see with the ears?,” she ponders.

Her performance Amauros (2011) presents a black screen and a selection of audio descriptions, including one that details an iconic moment from Café Müller: “Downstage, a woman with long hair and a man are standing, embracing. A fellow in a jacket comes up behind her. He unravels their arms, places them mouth to mouth…” This “dance for the ears” draws on Bausch’s choreography, encouraging audiences to tap into their own imagination and focus on internal sensations.

Amauros by Nicole Seiler © Nicole Seiler

Bausch often reminded dancers that “you’re best when you’re yourselves,” and indeed, one of the choreographer’s greatest legacies has been capturing the poetry of our everyday experiences. Dominik Więcek adopts this approach in an eponymous take on Café Müller, blending autobiographical elements with what the young artist calls “fan fiction.” Selected for the European program Aerowaves in 2023, Więcek’s Café Müller utilizes the structure of the original production to revisit childhood memories of his family’s relocation from Germany to Poland. Trading in Bausch’s nightdress for a silk pantsuit and winter coat, Więcek combines multiple roles in a solo venture, walking into walls, clattering across the stage in heels, and addressing the public coquettishly in German. Just as Bausch tapped into her early impressions to create Café Müller, Więcek affirms that “work on a performance begins long before the first steps related to its making.”

Café Müller by Dominik Więcek © Klaudyna Schubert

Igniting the dance theatre movement of the late 20th century, Bausch’s Café Müller went on to inspire multiple generations of artists to create interdisciplinary productions exploring what moves us. From French duo Régis Obadia and Joëlle Bouvier’s surreal chair tableaux in La Chambre (1988) to Greek choreographer Dimítris Papaïoánnou’s hybrid performances, Café Müller is interwoven in the fabric of contemporary dance. As for those who have performed in Bausch’s benchmark performance, some of them are still processing the experience years later, including Fabien Prioville. Reflecting on the legacy of a masterpiece and the memory of dancing it, his 2016 creation La Suite considers: “What would happen if the story continued?” For many of us, it already has.

Marisa Caitlin Hayes writes about dance for a variety of publications, including Dance Context, Dance Magazine, and Alternatives Théâtrales. Currently editor of The International Journal of Screendance, her academic research is focused on the relationship between dance and cinema. Her book Ju-on, published by Liverpool University Press, explores the influence of butoh dance in Takashi Shimizu’s eponymous film. She is currently a research supervisor in the Masters of Screendance at The Place – London Contemporary Dance School and co-directs the International Video Dance Festival of Burgundy.

Choreography: Boris Charmatz and the Tanztheater Wuppertal
From July 14 to 21 during the Avignon Festival

Choreography : Nicole Seiler
Watch online

Café Müller
Choreography : Dominik Więcek
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La chambre
Choreography : Jöelle Bouvier & Régis Obadia
Watch online

La Suite
Choreography : Fabien Prioville
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