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Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the Barbican
June 6–July 9, 2012
Seven weeks before the 2012 Olympics opened in London, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch began a marathon of its own. Dividing its time between Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican, the company presented a spectacular series of 10 evening-long works under the umbrella title World Cities 2012. Each piece sprang from an extended residency in a different city that provided the company with inspiration and impressions from which Bausch later made the dance.
With only two chances to see each work, six of them never shown in Britain before, both theatres sold out months in advance of the performances. A young choreographer told me she had bought her tickets a year ago, and lines formed every night for returns.
Everyone has a different understanding of the term dance-theatre.Though acclaimed as its international queen, Bausch left the academic discussions to others while she went about the daily business of creating astounding pieces that defy categorization. None follows a narrative or even a logical progression, and no one assumes a character. In Wiesenland (Budapest), this season’s final show, a woman ladled soup from an empty tureen. With that exception, I didn’t spot a moment of make-believe. The performers call each other by name and execute real actions in real time, without a whisper of artifice. What you see is what you get.
Shantala Shivalingappa in Nefés (inspired by Istanbul).
© Ursula Kaufmann, courtesy Sadler's Wells.
So everyone has a different reaction to the precisely jumbled collages of movement, music, and speech. A man in street clothes walks across the stage, stopping mid-way to turn his head and throw a sly glance at the audience. Why do we laugh? Is it dance? Is it theatre? In another piece, a man builds a tower of chairs, balancing them seat to seat, then foot to foot. A woman wriggles beneath the lowest seat, then inserts herself delicately through the next precarious tier. A man follows her at a distance, slipping across the floor as she slides, in the opposite direction, through the legs. I saw a couple dealing with shared obstacles. A friend saw a stalker, shadowing his prey.
Distinguished memorably by Peter Pabst’s startling settings—a gentle snowstorm, a mountain of flowers—these 10 city pieces also offered flashes of local color from the places that inspired them. In Ten Chi, with the cheerful politeness that informs all social exchanges in Japan, a patient woman wearing a backpack urged a non-existent group of tourists to keep moving. Wrapped in towels and clouds of steam during Nefés, the dancers relaxed in a Turkish bath. A crowd of stolid laborers advanced across a rocky field in Palermo Palermo, strewing rubbish as if they were sowing seeds.
Naturally, you picked out more of these references if you had some knowledge of a particular city. In Nur Du (Only You), the Los Angeles piece, a line of women in evening gowns sat facing us, lifting their long skirts to frame their legs. Outrageously costumed in heels, hose, earrings, and a white fox neckpiece, a man strolled behind their chairs, dressing their hair identically. In an instant, he turned individuals into stereotypes, preparing them to adopt whatever image the movie industry might demand. An excited cheerleader tossed off a string of long-remembered routines. As several couples tangoed languidly beneath towering redwoods, a small paper house burned to the ground, evoking the constant threat of forest fires. A woman walked across the stiffened arms of a group of men standing shoulder to shoulder. Were they helping her progress, or was she walking all over them?
Anna Wehsarg, Pablo Aran Gimeno, and Regina Advento in Nur Du (inspired by L.A.)
© Bettina Stöß, courtesy Sadler's Wells.
At heart, however, every piece revolves around the eternal tension between men and women, a subject that transcends cultural customs and perpetually fascinated Bausch. In Nefés (Istanbul), the men sprawl in straight chairs as the women crawl under their hanging hands to be stroked like pets. Four men pass a struggling woman back and forth across their shoulders. Several couples stand in loose embraces, from which the men drop away, leaving their partners holding nothing. They could as easily be in Hong Kong or Santiago de Chile. This, Bausch seems to say, is the human condition everywhere.
Whether addressing sexual conflict or the interplay between strong and weak or rich and poor, the 10 productions together constituted a masterclass in dancing itself. The actress Catherine Deneuve once said that nothing was harder than walking across the stage in a dress without pockets. But that’s not a problem for Bausch’s dancers, who step out elegantly in bare feet or stiletto heels, endowing even a walk with character.
Der Fensterputzer (inspired by Hong Kong).
© Oliver Look, courtesy Sadler's Wells.
Dazzling solos poured through the season in unimaginable variety, some like private meditations, some intricate as lace and apparently faster than thought. A man rolled and lunged within a circle of women, diving at their heels, part prisoner, part attacker. Light as a bird, a woman sprang from a deep crouch into a quivering stance, splaying her hands into fragile fans. Unexpectedly, bravura ensembles of meticulous unison dancing surged out of the episodic activity. Whipping into a snappy rehearsal, the performers laughed as they counted aloud. Clustered tightly together, the women flickered through an intricate passage of tiny steps and shifts of direction with one hand resting on their neighbor’s hip.
Unable to anticipate the next sequence or even the next step, we came to expect the astonishing, perfectly executed, and the company delivered it, night after night. The season warranted an Olympic medal of its own, because Bausch’s choreography and the dancers who embody her imagination set a standard few artists can even dream of achieving.
Nefés. © Zerrin Aydin Herwegh, courtesy Sadler's Wells.
Pictured at top: Julie Shanahan and Michael Strecker in Wiesenland (inspired by Budapest).
© Bettina Stöß, courtesy Sadler's Wells.