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Tanztheater Wuppertal, Pina Bausch's famous and much celebrated dance troupe, will perform two classic pieces – The Rite of Spring and Café Muller

Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring.

Pina Bausch depicted extremes on stage – love and hatred, joy and misery, kindness and cruelty. She came to prominence in the last quarter of a very bloody century (she was born in Germany in 1940), and her work can feel obsessed with violence. When she first took her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce was decidedly appalled. She described Bausch's The Rite of Spring, which depicts a terrified young woman being lynched by her community, as "the pornography of pain."

For others, Bausch was a total revelation. Her choreography did things they hadn't realized dance could do. It imposed on you; disturbing sequences of humiliation, exclusion and subjugation weren't easily forgotten. It also forced audiences to think harder about the space between choreographer and choreography: Was there irony in Bausch's appetite for sexual cruelty? Was she complicit with, or condemnatory of, the brutality depicted onstage?

The dance world fell instantly in love with the power and vitality of her work. Beyond it, Bausch quickly had a following of world-class directors: Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Pedro Almodovar. Wim Wenders, director of the exquisite 2011 documentary Pina, claims to have wept in his seat after seeing his first show. By the late-eighties, she was considered a pioneer in dance – among the century's most important choreographic innovators.

This week, Tanztheater Wuppertal returns to the National Arts Centre, marking their sixth visit to Canada since 2004. They'll be performing two seminal early works, The Rite of Spring (1975) and Café Muller (1978). In preparation for the show, I spoke with two members of Tanztheater, both with different stories to tell about dancing with the inimitable company.

Michael Strecker was a 30-year-old dancer working in Amsterdam in 1995 when he saw Pina Bausch perform for the first time – she was dancing the lead in Café Muller. Strecker was as impressed as he was bewildered. "I don't know what it was; it was so irritating to see a piece like this – a piece of dance theatre. I was mixed up. I didn't understand it," he tells me. But when the second act introduced him to The Rite of Spring, he was sold. "I fell completely in love with the company, with the work, with Pina."

Pina Bausch’s Café Muller.

Strecker didn't think he had much of a chance of getting a job with the company, but he couldn't resist the opportunity to meet Bausch in person and he'd heard that her auditions were unusual experiences. The rumour was that she'd consider every dancer slowly and carefully, no matter how big the crowd, and that it pained her to say goodbye to any of them. When Bausch offered him a contract, he confessed that he'd actually been thinking about retiring. Bausch wouldn't hear of it. "She told me, 'No, no, it's not possible, it's too early, you have to dance.'"

Strecker was tasked with learning lead company member Jan Minarik's role in Café Muller – a part danced opposite Bausch herself. But he didn't perform the role until the company was on tour in Stockholm in 1998. "Jan injured himself in the dress rehearsal and Pina called me in the morning – the early morning, actually – and said, 'You have to dance tonight, you have to do the opening.' I think my day was ruined," he says. Just before going on stage, he heard that the famed Swedish cinema auteur Bergman had travelled from the countryside to see the show. "Two of my heroes were in the building that night.

"The wonderful thing about Pina was her trust," he continues. "She really gave me the feeling that I'm the right one and I can do it." Before his entrance, he was able to watch her from the wings, smashing herself repeatedly against the wall, as the choreography requires. "I almost missed my entrance. I was so fascinated by seeing her in this dress. … She was so vulnerable. When she moved, the space was sort of tilting for me. I think this was the most beautiful moment to see her there. Then I had to go on stage – but I felt she trusted me. I couldn't go wrong."

Regular days at Tanztheater Wuppertal were long, starting with a company ballet class at 10 a.m., with rehearsals often continuing until 10 p.m. "We didn't look at the clock – we just worked until the work was done. Pina loved to work."

During his first two years, Strecker spent lots of time on the sidelines, watching and listening. "Pina was never loud, she always spoke very gently. You sometimes had to say in the theatre, 'Pina you have to speak harder, we can't hear you.' She created this atmosphere of silence and calmness. When she spoke, we had to make an effort to listen – you couldn't make noise or anything. She had a different way of talking to each colleague, to really touch and reach each person.

In 1984, a New Yorker dance critic described Bausch’s The Rite of Spring as ‘the pornography of pain.’

"When I came, I had a special idea of how I wanted to be on stage, or how I should be onstage. I'm a tall, strong man, so I thought I had to act strong. Pina said: 'You don't have to act. You just are yourself. Find a way that I can believe you. Don't make yourself bigger or stronger than what you are – you are what you are and you have to use that.' As a dancer, it's very strange to hear that because you always want to be better and stronger than you are; you want to look healthy and shiny on stage. She took that away and said: 'Just be yourself.'"

Bausch died of lung cancer in 2009, so dancer Ophelia Young, who joined Tanztheater in 2014, is among a growing contingent of members who only know the founder indirectly. Born in New York City and raised in Austria, Young studied dance at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany, where Bausch was a student in the 1950s.

"It's a bit frustrating sometimes that I haven't had the chance to talk to this … charismatic woman, apparently," Young tells me. "I'm now in a position that I think I can interpret her work, without even being chosen by her or even having some human contact with her. I used to say I'm getting to know my own ' Pina cosmos' through the generations that have worked with her, talking and working with each one of them. Now I feel we are somehow a big family, with all the pros and cons that come with that."

Bausch infamously smoked in rehearsals long after bylaws forbade it. Theatres would have special ventilating machines set up that allowed her to keep puffing away covertly. She was undaunted by rules, manners, fines – even concerns about her own health. So Young likes an anecdote about the only time Bausch made an exception. "There was a dancer who she knew couldn't stand it. So whenever she had a correction for him, or asked him to come close, he was the only one that she put out her cigarette for." Young laughs. "She was a passionate smoker – a passionate woman."

"We share experiences and Pina is there with us all the time, I guess," Young adds. "I just can't tell what is her and what is somebody else. But that's okay, I think."

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch will perform at the National Arts Centre from Sept. 28 to 30.