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Pina Bausch's Kontakthof (teenage cast). Photo by Laszlo Szito, courtesy Barbican Theatre.
Imagine awkward adolescents and elderly men and women performing the identical dance on consecutive nights. It sounds unlikely and maybe even embarrassing, but Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof came alive twice in London when ladies and gentlemen over 65 and teenagers over 14, none of them professional dancers, proved that meaningful art is truly ageless.
Created for her company in 1978, this riveting exploration of intimacy and isolation unrolls like a revue, in short vivid episodes that involve dance, singing, speech, and natural gesture. Everything occurs in real time, and every movement is true to life, neither distorted nor stylized, because Bausch found so much theatricality in ordinary behavior that she never bothered with fanciful illusions.
Thirteen men in suits and ties and 13 women in satin cocktail dresses have met in a large white room to socialize. But even before they pair up to dance, a woman walks straight toward us and presents her front, back, side, teeth, hands, and face, hair pulled back, for our consideration. Several women follow her, repeating her movements precisely, then all the men replace the women, and suddenly what looked at first like a social gathering took on the unmistakable air of an audition.
Both forms of exhibitionism fascinated Bausch, so as the dancers waltzed doggedly, stumbled forward in pinching shoes, collapsed with fatigue, or lifted their arms to welcome a partner, they also submitted themselves to someone else’s approval, simultaneously embodying the battle of the sexes and every performer’s struggle for acceptance.
Tender caresses evolve into harsh slaps and shoving; affectionate couples split apart casually or violently; smiling mouths mutter anecdotes of disappointment; painful tricks evoke appreciative applause and laughter from the onstage spectators. Preserving the formalities, the men and women treat one another politely, but each hopeful encounter dwindles into failure or flashed with anger.
Adding another layer of transformation to these emotional surprises, the age of the performers changed the gestures’ implications and the atmosphere of the action. The seniors squared their drooping shoulders willfully, to give the impression of vitality; the youngsters straightened up grudgingly, to fulfill a public obligation.
Hormones and expectation forced the young men to grope protesting girls who secretly longed to be groped; the older men reached out desperately, and the women they pawed dismissed their insistant advances wearily. When the teenagers broke a clinch to pose for a photograph, their upright stance and serious expressions conjured the weighty rituals of prom night; the older couples posed patiently, simply because the occasion demanded it.
Parading the fears and foibles we all share, Bausch and the two casts also reminded us that even when we hide from personal exposure in a like-minded crowd, our individuality stands out. Having spent only a few hours with them, I would recognize these remarkable unknown dancers anywhere.
See www.pina-bausch.de for future tour dates.