Matthias Burkert

On 27 October 2022, our long-time collaborator Matthias Burkert passed away in Wuppertal. For more than four decades, his work and his presence as a human being shaped the Tanztheater Wuppertal and Pina Bausch’s pieces.

We have lost a valued colleague who, through his musical work, his playful and sometimes experimental approach to music and improvisation, and his sensitivity towards artistic processes, left an indelible mark on the work of the ensemble. We mourn the death of Matthias Burkert.

In silent gratitude,

 the ensemble of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch



Matthias Burkert was born 1953 in Duisburg and finished school in 1972 in Wuppertal. He started piano lessons at the age of six. After studying for two years at the art academy in Düsseldorf, he decided to devote himself exclusively to his real passion, music, and in 1974 began studying piano at the Wuppertal college of Cologne’s music academy, with trumpet and singing as additional subjects. Most important to him there was the holistic piano-teaching approach of Prof Harald Bojé, under whom he studied contemporary music, his specialist subject. Matthias Burkert had a natural, unselfconscious relationship with instruments; from an early age improvisation was his passion, not solely on the piano. His approach to music was playful, experimental and open.

He first saw a piece by Pina Bausch in 1975 in Wuppertal, her version of Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps. Although Burkert had no experience of ballet, the unmediated humanity of Pina Bausch's contemporary dance language left a profound impression on him. In 1978, after finishing his studies, he took up the offer of a post teaching piano at his college. In 1976 he had already become musical director at Wuppertal's children and youth theatre – a position he retained till 2001 despite the increasing demands of the job. Alongside this he had piano pupils of his own. In 1979 Pina Bausch was looking for a new pianist, as the répétiteur who accompanied their daily training wished to retire. She took on Burkert, who initially looked over the existing pianist's shoulder; accompanying training was new territory for him. His responsibilities quickly changed however. Pina Bausch was in the process of redefining dance, not only in terms of subject matter and choreography, but in terms of the music used, and she needed help. His work now included research, as well the musical aspects of dramaturgy – developing dramatic tension and attuning the music precisely to the dances and scenes. At the time this was still time-consuming work for a sound technician. Not only did every piece of music have to be recorded onto tape or cassette then edited every time a change was made; it was also harder to locate unusual music. Burkert combed the record shops of Wuppertal and the surrounding area, and contacted radio archives and private collectors. Sometimes as many as four tape players were used in parallel, in order to enable a swift changeover.

Burkert's first collaboration with Pina Bausch was in 1980, with Bandoneon. She had brought a wealth of material back from South America which he had to edit, and where necessary he composed pieces of his own. The ensemble's extended tours, and the growing number of co-productions resulting from them, were changing the nature of the work. New musical horizons were opened each time during research on location. Ultimately, however, the trick was to allow the musical spirit of a country to be heard, without it sounding folkloristic.

The dances and scenes almost always emerged independently of the music, thus developing and affirming their self-sufficiency – amongst other things. The music was chosen partly as a result of considerations made at the start, but largely through a dogged process of trial and error, which was not only the guiding working principle; it determined the content of each piece. Pina Bausch often asked him to re-examine everything which seemed to have worked musically in rehearsal and to abandon whole blocks of music to make way for radical new ideas. Aspects of the performances were suddenly experienced anew. Critical in making the final selection, as Pina Bausch said, was whether in twenty years they would still look forward to the next track each time, that it would always sound fresh and new. 

Matthias Burkert accompanied each rehearsal process from the start, collecting music and ordering it according to its quality or atmosphere, or with particular dancers in mind, whose characters were becoming ever more familiar to him. Pina Bausch increasingly incorporated him into her pieces with musical performances. He sat next to her during every show, regulating the musical temperature of the performance, talking to his colleagues at the mixing desk through a microphone.

In 1995 he was joined by Andreas Eisenschneider. Today they are an experienced team, with joint responsibility for music at the Tanztheater Wuppertal where they complement each other. They were co-directors of music for Wim Wenders' film Pina.

Norbert Servos

Translated by Steph Morris