Students participated in all aspects of Veränderung, from choreography to costumes. Photo by Uwe Stratmann, Courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal.

These High Schoolers Collaborated with Pina Bausch Dancers for Possibly the Coolest Group Project Ever

Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).

Over the course of four weeks, 59 students, ages 14 to 16, worked with adult mentors in six groups—movement, music, costume, lighting, film and management—to conceptualize, stage and execute a live performance at Riedel Communications' black-box theater in Wuppertal. The production included dance and theater, light shows, live music, film segments, and imaginative costumes, all produced by students who are guided by local professionals in each of their fields.

Students had hands-on experience with Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers. Photo by Laszlo Szito, Courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers Rainer Behr and Silvia Farias Heredia, mentors to the movement group, had their work cut out for them: Most students had never seen a dance performance before, let alone had contact with Bausch's work. But the goal was to access students' creativity, not turn them into dancers. Behr compares the process to a gardener carefully digging up the earth to uncover hidden blooms beneath the surface. "It wasn't easy," he says. "The students are discovering so much. Their minds are buzzing jungles that never turn off, and we had to find a way to fit into that noise…to get them to be in their own element, and give structure to the chaos."

Questions that Spark Creativity

A scene from Veränderung. Photo by Laszlo Szito, Courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal.

The mentors worked their way in by posing questions and developing students' answers into staged scenarios for this month's performance. The first question: What do you do when you're bored at home alone? The answers: A girl sways in front of a full-length mirror in a sequined party skirt and high heels; two boys lounge on a couch tapping their toes and snapping their fingers; a girl in a white coat blows feathers into the air and watches them fall to the ground; one person sketches in a notebook while another paces back and forth. These snapshots accumulated until the whole stage was filled with activity.

The questions, and scenarios, continued: Students staged a runway show where they critiqued each other's walks. They crept behind screens, and crouched among tree branches, their movements masked in shadow. They waded through imaginary water, and even experienced five minutes of lonely stillness in front of their peers. And interspersed throughout, the students danced, performing individual phrases that evoked the capture and release of energy—pushing and sweeping, circling one arm around the other, and dropping hands to the floor as though passing sand through their fingertips.

Students played with dramatic lighting and set pieces. Photo by Laszlo Szito, Courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Discovery at Any Age

Tanztheater Wuppertal has a history of community outreach. In 2000, Pina Bausch staged her work Kontakthof for a group of people over 60 years old, and again in 2008 for children under 14. Veränderung (Change) is part of the company's latest initiative, called "tanz, tanz …," supported by the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, which initiates collaborations with children of all ages. Ruth Amarante, company dancer and program leader, is passionate about this work. "We want to take people out of what they know and give them tools to create their own visions, no matter their ages," she says.

For the people of Wuppertal, discovery never ends. Vanessa Kraffczyk, a 15-year-old student, confirms how working with Tanztheater Wuppertal's dancers encouraged her to trust herself. "We were allowed to try anything we liked, and felt completely safe to experiment," she says. As a mentor, Behr is proud of what they achieved and is already eager for the next project. "In the studio with Pina," he says, "there was always space for us. That room—that level of loving honesty and trust to discover something new—is what our company wants to pass on."

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