Review: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Iphigenie auf Tauris at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 27, 28, 30, 31 October 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 28 October 2010

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Ruth Amarante in ‘Iphigenie auf Tauris’
Photo: Ulli Weiss

Reviewed: 27 October 2010

It is both a coincidence and a paradox that the companies of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch have opened shows in London on consecutive nights this week. How lucky are we, by the way? Luckier still if we remember just a week back to the stunning retrospective of Trisha Brown’s work at venues on the South Bank. Brown, happily, is still very much amongst us but Cunningham and Bausch died within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 2009.

This back-to-back visit of the companies that bear their names presents an interesting contrast in the way each views the safeguarding of their founder’s legacy. The Cunningham company will cease to operate at the end of 2011 after the conclusion of a mammoth ‘Legacy’ tour and huge resources will be invested into creating 50 ‘dance capsules’ to keep his major works alive in the state that they were intended. The joint artistic director of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Dominique Mercy, has confessed that had the company not been on tour when Bausch passed away so suddenly, it too may have dissolved from the immense shock of that loss. But, here, a year and more on from that tragic event, we see a company that will continue to honour the legacy of Bausch in performance, hopefully for a very long time to come. For me, this is much the better of the two approaches.

Iphigenie auf Tauris is an immense work in the Bausch repertoire; partly since it came so early on in her tenure as Director of the Wuppertal company (just a year after she took over in 1973); but mainly because of its complete early affirmation of her holistic approach to tanztheater (dance theatre) being the sum of many constituent parts, amongst which dance is just one element (and not always or by any means the most integral). Iphigenie auf Tauris is an opera, composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck in the late eighteenth century, which was translated into a dance-opera by Bausch. At Sadler’s Wells, the singers were arranged on either side, at first tier level in the auditorium, with their dancing counterparts occupying the stage throughout. This produced a fascinating stereophonic aural/visual impact, with the sounds coming from the orchestra in front and below and the singers to the side and above. It would have been impossible to concentrate on the dance and read surtitles but the German text was incomprehensible to me (and I suspect most present) so the narrative intent of the singing was lost and I concentrated only upon the voices as (wonderful) instruments of music.

The rich tapestry of visual images in Bausch’s direction and choreography leaves no room to take a breather in four Acts spread over two hours (one 20 minute interval aside). From the opening tableau of a half-hidden bath and hanging white sheets with an ensemble of white nightgown-clad women, slicing diagonally across the stage with clean, razor-like repetitive movements, one arm extended, both arms crossed in front, step forward with a quick counter-step back. In Acts I and IV, this assembly of priestesses provides the vital fluid core of the work, whether frozen in stunning explanatory or evocative tableau or moving both in synchronised harmony and as independent sub-groups. As in Bausch’s titanic Amazonian Le Sacre Du Printemps (made in the same year as Iphigenie auf Tauris) it is the body of women that invests this work with energy and life. Ruth Amarante gives an ebullient danced account of the captive heroine Iphigenie, her long dark hair giving a bewitching aura to the undead daughter of Agamemnon (the narrative follows Euripides’ alteration of mythology in so far as imagining that Iphigenie is not sacrificed by Agamemnon to fulfil the condition set by the Goddess Diana to allow the Greek armies to set sail for the Trojan wars). Another performance to note was Jorge Puerta Armenta as the wild-eyed, dramatic Skythen king, Thoas (sung impressively by Thomas Laske).

Despite my pared-down synopsis in the preceding paragraph, the story of Iphigenie auf Tauris is immensely complex to summarise and – if Greek mythology is not your bag – it might be as well to just accept the flow of visual and aural riches without wondering too much about the linearity of any narrative. It is, however, astounding how fresh and modern the work remains. I came home to see an old ’70s film repeated on TV and to realise how completely dated that era now seems. By contrast, this work from 1974 seems as fresh as if it were made in the year that Bausch died. The modernism of her work should ensure that it remains fresh and alive for decades to come.

It’s true that this is danced interpretation of an eighteenth century opera, sung in German, and set to a play by Euripides, written 450 years before Christ. But my advice is to forget eighteenth century German opera; forget Greek myths; this work is a masterpiece of contemporary theatre.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
Iphigenie auf Tauris continues at Sadler’s Wells on Thu 28, Sat 30 & Sun 31 October. Returns only

Merce Cunningham Company **_*Nearly Ninety*_ continues at the Barbican Theatre until Sat 30 Oct. Some seats available our review

Image: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Ruth Amarante in ‘Iphigenie auf Tauris’
Photo: Ulli Weiss

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