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Staged for the first time on 29 years and receiving its UK premiere here this is one for the Pina completists. Those who went along expecting a Pina Bausch piece like one of the 12 international co-productions she did inspired by various ‘World Cities’ were in for a shock. Those had had shifting patterns of light and shade, comic elements and an, often, sensuous soundtrack containing a melange of musical styles. None of that is here.
Created in 1977 just two years after her legendary version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring but three before 1980 which signalled the creation of her own dance aesthetic, it is all movement rather than the signature mix of dance and theatrical vignette (Tanztheater) which typified her later work.
Instead of creating a choreographic version of the libretto from Bartók’s famous opera, like she had done in the early ‘70s with two Gluck operas, and then with the Stravinsky, here she broke down the musical material into its smallest fragmented psychological elements. It’s not so much a rendering of the opera more an immersion in the dark soul of it all.
We are in a huge run-down apartment with tall doors and windows. A single cable runs across the room to a sound desk where Bluebeard controls a tape recording of the opera, playing and re-playing sections. The dancers, individually or as a group, sometimes representing the wives, writhe or crawl across a floor strewn with dead autumn leaves, leaving traces of their actions as they do.
Bluebeard and his wife are mirrored and multiplied by a dozen other couples and the sense of oppression is palpable as they couple, de-couple, struggle, make up. The piece is physical in the extreme. With an unflinching clarity Bausch confronts audiences with the eternal power struggles between men and women. It’s as if they are all on a closed loop of despair, devotion, longing, disappointment but mostly abuse, driven by obsessive love and dependency, but what really challenges here is the visceral sexual violence. This was a real departure for a dance company in 1977 and is in many ways even more provocative today in the era of #MeToo.
An early work of a great artist is always worth exploring for the tropes which later comes to typify their work. The chain line walk, long haired young women in slinky evening gowns, males preening like peacocks and Bausch’s penchant for repetition, which in this piece captures the manic quality of the relationships, are all here.
This piece was famously televised on the opening night of Channel Four in 1982 (that was when Channel Four did high culture) and its founder Jeremy Isaacs recounted in his memoir that the switchboard had lit up that night with complaints, including the classic: “What is this rubbish and why am I still watching it”! Nothing could better exemplify the mesmeric hold of a Bausch production when you go with it.