The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual Next Wave Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary in the fall of 2012, and once again served as an intriguing showcase for leading international work in many disciplines. As such, the festival is also a showcase for the work of leading international designers, whose work might not otherwise be seen in New York, such as Peter Pabst from Germany who designed Como el musguito en la piedra. ay si, si, si...(Like moss on a stone…) the final entry in a canon of work by choreographer Pina Baush—the piece premiered in Wuppertal, Germany in June 2009, the same month Bausch died at the age of 68.

Bausch, Pabst, and BAM have a long history, stretching back to 1984 when Baush’s Wuppertaler Tanztheater first came to the US as a highlight of the second annual Next Wave Festival, the first of many BAM-Bausch events. By then, Pabst had started his 29-year career with Bausch (what he calls a close, symbiotic relationship), creating décor and lighting for the choreographer’s work.

How did Pabst and Basuch approach each new piece? “I did not think of what the set would be at the beginning of the process,” explains Pabst. “Pina had no idea what the final movement would be, she didn’t express herself in that way.” As a result, Pabst’s approach with Bausch was “different from how I work in opera with a score, or theatre with a play,” the designer notes. “With Pina, I would ask myself questions, it was like searching for something in the fog but you didn’t really know what you were looking for. This made it complicated, but challenging. There was no specific place from which to start the design process. I’d have to trust her. That was one of the key words in working with Pina. You also needed a lot of patience­—with her and with yourself.”

While many of Pabst’s sets for Bausch ended up being complicated—stages covered with water, large rocks, grass, thousands of carnations, walls that collapse—this was not always the case. But to get cues on how to proceed for any new piece, Pabst reveals that he “stayed curious, always looking around, watching rehearsals, to see what the dancers were doing. Pina herself spent a long time asking questions to the dancers. It was like shooting a film without a script.”

On occasion, Pabst would present a first trial of what could be a set, but as he admits, “we’d take it all apart again. I’d work parallel to what Pina was doing, sometimes that resulted in four, five or even six sets for a production. It’s a challenge for a designer to have a black box staring at you, asking what do you want to do, like a blank page for a writer, or a blank canvas for an artist. There is no starting point for discussion.”

Regardless, Bausch and Pabst would share concepts that eventually came together over time. “I’d eventually show her something and she’d say if she was interested or not,” Pabst recalls. “As she decided which scenes to keep, we’d discuss what would happen in any one of the sets I proposed. We’d delay the decision of what the set would be as long as possible, sometimes to three or four weeks before the premiere, which was really late for the theatre, especially if there were complicated solutions.”

Fortunately Pabst knows the folks in the shop at the theatre well, and was able to stall as long as possible. “I’d ask them it they could still do ‘this’ in time, and there was always a crucial moment once the set was locked in,” he explains. For Bausch, that meant a shifting of gears: “She would have been working on a black Marley floor, then had to see her work in the new world of the set.” Pabst adds. “For me it was always a hurry to be ready for the premiere.”

Pabst would then face the folks in the scenic shop in at the theatre in Wuppertal. “I’d show them how it was possible in the remaining time, by not sleeping and keeping them motivated to get everything built. It would not have been possible if we didn’t know each other so well,” he says. “In the end, we made it every time, tired but they always asked when I would be coming back.

“There is a lot of risk involved in working this way, we were always late, getting the set just five or six days before the premiere,” Pabst continues. “There is not a lot of time for the dancers to conquer the set, which often requires great physicality. But they are curious, and make it their own very quickly. Some pieces are more abstract, I call those my Zen pieces.”

Click below for Part 2 of the Peter Pabst story...and more Next Wave designers...

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