Retrospection and Humour in Pina Bausch Dance Piece

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Various Composers, 1980 – A Piece by Pina Bausch: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Sadler’s Wells, London, 11.02.2014 (JO’D)
Regina Advento, Ruth Amarante, Lutz Förster, Silvia Farias Heredia, Mechthild Großmann, Barbara Kaufmann, Ditta Miranda, Jasjfi, Daphnis Kokkinos, Eddie Martinez, Nazareth Panadero, Helena Pikon, Jean-Laurent Sasportes, Franko Schmidt, Azusa Seyama, Fernando Suels Mendoza, Tsai-Chin Yu

Magician: Reiner Roth
Violin: Robin Brightman
Harmonium: Joachim Bärenz
Gymnast: Peter Sandhoff

Music: John Dowland, John Wilson, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Johannes Brahms, Edward Elgar, Frances Lai, Benny Goodman, Comedian Harmonists

Director & Choreographer: Pina Bausch
Set Design: Peter Pabst
Costume Design: Marion Cito
Dramatic Advisor: Raimund Hoghe
Collaboration: Hans Pop

Throughout the three hours that the dance theatre 1980 – A Piece by Pina Bausch lasts, a life-sized model of a fawn stands looking at the audience from the back of the extended, grass-covered stage. A lot happens in these three hours, but at no point (that I was aware of) did any of the performers acknowledge the presence of this creature. The television set, microphone, spotlights and harmonium it shares the stage with are all put to use at different times, but the fawn just stands there. Is it meant to give the idea of a forest? If so, it could be the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ The stage here is certainly a place of (absurd, surreal, even magical) transformation. But if there is a reference to Shakespearean comedy (and 1980 – A Piece by Pina Bausch is full of humour), there is also a more explicit reference to Shakespearean tragedy: a repeatedly played recording of John Dowland’s ‘The Willow Song’ (the song that Desdemona sings shortly before her death in ‘Othello’).

In 1980, the year of the work’s premiere, director and choreographer Pina Bausch (who died in 2009) was forty. This may explain its retrospective element. Childhood, or rather adults behaving as if they were children, is a recurrent theme. Elegant and glamorous (in fashions of the 1940s and 1950s, their colours vivid against the grass), the characters on the stage are largely self-absorbed, and isolated from each other. They repeat a phrase or action (repetition becomes a defining characteristic of the piece) as children do. In monologues delivered to the audience they remember scenes from their childhood, seen always from their own point of view (‘I couldn’t help it, could I’ is the refrain to one of them). This self-absorption may reflect one that Pina Bausch detected in the air in 1980 itself. For that was a year, looking back, in which everything began to change. There is even a sense of mourning about the climax to the first half. On separate towels, the cast sit down as if to sunbathe. In varying degrees of nakedness they arrange themselves into postures that make some of them barely recognizable as human beings. While they do this Judy Garland can be heard singing two, juxtaposed versions of ‘Over the Rainbow’: one with the voice she had on the soundtrack to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (in 1939); one with the very different voice she had in a live concert towards the end of her life.

1980 (in which four of the original cast members still perform) plays its audience like an instrument. It constantly shifts between the comic and the unsettling. ‘Would anyone like a cup of tea?’ one of the men asks not long before the interval. (After nearly an hour and a half, most people are probably dying for one). He and one of the women then come down into the stalls bearing trays on which they balance teapot, teacups and saucers. While a magician performs tricks to entertain the rest of the cast and audience, they pour tea for people who accept the offer. More surprising (and magical) still is the moment in the second half when the cast as a whole moves out into the auditorium. In a line, making intriguing, choreographed gestures with their arms and hands, they walk along the aisles. Two of them even come up to the First Circle, where they edge their way past the knees of the people in row A.

It is in the second half that the spotlights are used to throw long shadows across the grass. This half has its humorous moments (the performers of different nationalities trying to repeat lines of the ‘Betty Botter’ tongue twister, for example). The mood changes when the men and women have to list their scars. When asked by the disembodied voice to list the things they are afraid of, one of the older women says: ‘Death.’ ‘Is that all?’ the voice asks. ‘That’s enough,’ she answers back. The ending, which starts out as if it is going to be a reprise of something comic from the first half, was so serious in tone, so unexpected, and so sudden, that I gasped.

John O’Dwyer