Marlis Alt was born 19 March 1950 in the Bavarian town of Uffenheim. At 16 she went to the Folkwang School in Essen to study dance. Her teachers included Egbert Strolka, Jean Cébron and Hans Züllig. On completing her course she became a member of the Folkwang Dance Studio, led by Pina Bausch, in whose choreographies Fragment, Im Wind der Zeit, Aktionen für Tänzer and Nachnull she danced. She was fascinated not just by Pina Bausch’s physical language but also her working methods; as well as dictating movements, Bausch adopted improvisations from her dancers, engaging with the particular qualities of each person. She gave each of them space for their own interpretations. For Marlis Alt it was ‘true collaboration, in dialogue with her.’ Like this, everyone could continue to develop. At that time this was not established practice.
In 1972 she was given a DAAD grant to study in New York at the Martha Graham School with teachers such as Yuriko and Mary Hinkson. In 1973 she returned to Germany and was taken on by Pina Bausch in her new dance theatre company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal. She became one of the ‘founding’ dancers, performing in works as varied as Fritz, the ‘schlager revue’ I'll Do You In, Adagio – Five Songs by Gustav Mahler and the dance opera Orpheus and Eurydice. In the original triple bill Rite of Spring (1975) she had roles in all three parts. Her creation of the victim in the third piece, a choreography of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, was exceptional. Marlis Alt gave the pain, desperation and fear of her protagonist an emotional directness, leaving the audience no escape from the confrontation. The role she shaped became a benchmark for many subsequent dancers. At the same time she saw a consoling aspect to a sacrifice made to renew the seasonal rhythm; the consolation for her was the communion of the ritual, connecting everyone with each other: everyone is a victim; no-one is alone. In this sense, she was aware of the way Pina Bausch’s choreography was simultaneously atavistic and contemporary, archaic and current.
Following performances in the Brecht/Weill double bill The Seven Deadly Sins (1976) she continued with the role of Judith in Blaubeard – While listening to a tape recording of Béla Bartóks opera ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’ (1977), a further milestone. Again a woman is a victim. Again she is played by Marlis Alt in a mixture of resilience and resignation, rebellion and despair. Only this could give her take on the role the edge it needed, bringing the figure up close to the audience, making it tangible. Despite her intuitive understanding of Pina Bausch’s choreographic world, after her final performances in Renate Emigrates, in the 1977/78 season, she abandoned dance. She married, raised two children and supported her husband for several years in his fight against soil erosion in Ethiopia. In 1998 she returned once more to Wuppertal at Pina Bausch’s invitation for the new production of Bluebeard. Marlis Alt died on 18 June 2020 in Switzerland.
Text by Norbert Servos Translation by Steph Morris
See also: Cooperation Folkwang