Review: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch - Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 15 - 18 April 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 17 April 2015

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch 'Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört' Sadler's Wells, April 2015. Photo Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 15 April

My bucket list is straightforward. I’d like to see every work made by Pina Bausch before the grim reaper calls. The nice people at Sadler’s Wells continue to help tick my to-do list down since this fortnight will see two of her older works – both from the mid-1980s – receive their UK premiere.

This production brings my tally to 25 – and, without tempting fate, I hope it rises to 26, with Ahnen , next week (from a revivable catalogue that I calculate to be about 40 pieces). There’s still a long way to go but I’ve yet to find a work by Bausch and her team that hasn’t left me inspired and exhilarated. Although if I were to be offered the chance to see any of these 25 again, Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört, would most likely be towards the bottom of the list.

It’s a dark piece, both in style and visibility. Premiered in Wuppertal on 13 May 1984, the work fits into a particularly fertile period, both in terms of artistry and imagery; following Nelken (1983), and preceding Two Cigarettes in the Dark (1985). It also bears an association with Bausch’s momentous The Rite of Spring (originally performed in 1975 as part of a Stravinsky triptych, entitled Frühlingsopfer), since both are performed on a thick layer of soil.

It’s a work essentially about fear and grief, a clue to which comes in the biblical reference of the title. Although the passage appears in Matthew 2:18, it was taken from Heinrich Schütz’s St Matthew Passion: the full quotation, which refers to Herod’s slaughter of the children is – ‘On the mountain a cry was heard, much lamentation and wailing; Rachel was weeping for her children and would not be comforted; for that was the end of them’.

There is a sense of foreboding throughout Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört and it ends in an unusually abrupt and incomplete way, missing the typical Bausch promenade of dancers repeating simple movements (although something akin to this appears earlier in the piece) and any sense of harmony or reconciliation. Despite several episodes of lighter intent, it remains uncompromisingly sinister and unsettling from first to last.

The reference to a mountain, in a work about the lamentation of loss, performed by a German company, made me think about the recent slaughter of children amongst the passengers of the aeroplane deliberately crashed into the Alps. It is surprising how a 30 year-old work can have such immediate topical relevance.

The two – more or less equal – “acts” are joined-together by a dancer remaining on stage throughout the interval, visibly aging through the greying of her hair. Leit motifs run through both halves but don’t necessarily cross over the interval. The first part is dominated by a muscular swimmer (Michael Strecker), dressed in red trunks and rubber swim-hat, with a band constricting his nose so that his face looks deformed. He moves through the soil with a Frankenstein-style, slow certainty and blows up balloons methodically until they burst, pulling a new one from inside his bathing-trunks and beginning again. He remains an alien figure in a strange landscape throughout the first act and it is Strecker who comes to announce the interval. The fact that he is now dressed in evening wear seems to hint that his swimming and balloon-inflating time is done.

Twenty five of the Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers are required for a piece that frequently needs a crowd; and it is illuminating to see that five of the original cast are still treading the soil more than 30 years’ after the premiere. Two of these – Dominique Mercy and Lutz Förster – have gone on to lead the company since Bausch’s death, in 2009, and here they both portray “outsiders”; lost souls that drift in and out of the action. Perhaps the most touching scene is when Mercy and Förster walk together in a downstage direction, away from the audience – arms around each other’s shoulders – just breaking into a little jig from time-to-time. It is as if they’re back in 2009, discussing what they should do with the company now that its founder has gone.

Another survivor from the premiere, Jean-Laurent Sasportes is regularly knocked to the floor by a running woman and then appears – incongruously, cross-dressing in a belly-dancer’s costume complete with droopy nipple-tassels attached to his bra-top. Amongst other regulars reprising roles they created in 1984 are the gravel-voiced Nazareth Panadero and Helena Pikon.

While there is – of course – spoken text, it appears less evident than in many other works by Bausch – and indeed the gravel voice of Panadero is hardly heard. There is a strong and uncomfortable sense of abuse: one man slaps a woman repeatedly, stuffs something in her mouth (an apple?) and pushes her violently; another kicks the women who are lying in a tight formation on the floor and insists that they call him “uncle” before storming around the stage screaming about murder and rape.

There is dance, notably from tiny Ditta Miranda Jasjfi (following Fred Astaire and Lionel Ritchie by literally dancing up the wall) and in a vibrant rock-and-roll sequence, with fast moving spins whipping up the earth; and there is humour, especially in an episode where two women enter dressed as children, sweetly smiling directly at the audience, while alternately turning cartwheels, still holding hands. One girl returns in the second act to play a bizarre game of hide-and-seek with the audience, masked by several upturned Christmas trees that have been dumped on the soil.

A well-behaved fog was called into play, once in each act, the smoke hanging obediently over the stage; and elements of deconstruction were also brought to bear with the curtains occasionally closing and re-opening on the action. The best moment of absurd mayhem came late on when a small orchestra of well-dressed elderly gentlemen wandered onto the stage, looking lost, before settling down to play a number [they were conducted by The Royal Ballet’s former principal pianist, Phillip Gammon]. It was a sequence of pure Bauschian magic!

Generally, I find Bausch’s work to be challenging but ultimately uplifting, usually through an ending of glass-half-full reassurance. Here, the feeling of humans (especially, women) being hunted (especially by men) prevailed; always bouncing back after the transitory freshness of lighter moments; leaving a feeling of unease that persisted well beyond the brutal and urgent ending.

Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört continues until Sat 15 April. A few tickets still available

Ahnen , Thu 23 – Sun 26 April:

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards.

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