Review: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch - Vollmond - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 22 -25 February 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 25 February 2013

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch - 'Vollmond' Photo: Laurent Philippe

Performance reviewed: 22 February

It is hardly a coincidence that the main image from PinaWim Wenders’ sensational posthumous film for Pina Bausch – is taken from Vollmond. There is so much beauty contained in her long-lasting collaborations with Peter Pabst (set design) and Marion Cito (costumes), that Wenders had an overflowing treasure trove of iconic images to choose from but somehow Vollmond seems to trump the rest. (Incidentally, although the price tag may seem a hefty disincentive, for a fantastic two-dimensional overview of the artistic output of this amazing trio then I recommend investing in the book, Peter für Pina Wenders and Pabst, which is, in itself, a gorgeous work of art).

It may seem strange to describe Pabst’s designs as simplistic: after all, this is a man who covers the stage in carnations (Nelken) in the rubble of broken breeze blocks (Palermo Palermo ); or commands it with a water meadow (Wiesenland ) or even a giant whale fin (Ten Chi ). These ideas are always basic, but writ large.

In Vollmond it is a massive rock that dominates the back area of the stage, bridging a shallow trench of water. In all other respects, Pabst’s set is simply dressed in black. Yet it has a visual impact that outrageously gains in emphasis through this ingenious simplicity. When the rain comes, beautifully lit, with Ditta Miranda Jasjfi – a tiny, almost timid but remarkably tensile dancer from Indonesia – performing a wavering solo replete with apparently indigenous homeland flavours in her sublime arm movements, we are given the most amazing spectacle. It is as if time is suspended with the viewer transported from just yards away from a busy road in North London to being voyeurs onto a moonlit waterfall in some utopian Shangri-La. It is, in fact, unsurprisingly Jasjfi’s image – governed by those amazing arms – that Wenders chose as the one to best illustrate his film.

That photograph is also monopolised by droplets of water cascading around the airborne dancer and water is the lead influence of this work. Beginning with two men swishing open empty plastic bottles to capture a noise, it is a while before the uninitiated realise that the dark recesses of the stage hold a “stream” but when it arrives the water – and its rocky sentry – remains the ever-present feature. Most of the dozen performers took turns to splash in it, swim in it, dive into it, fish from it, party beside it, and one even draws up buckets to take a shower from. And if they weren’t playing in the trench then it was other water-based tricks that took centre stage: two guys with puffed cheeks lay side-by-side and spat jets at each other; a man filled a woman’s glass from a plastic bottle and just kept on pouring from an ever-greater height beyond the glass being full, peremptorily wiping her chest with a towel when the overflow had gushed all over her.

Made in 2006, Vollmond is generally a lighter, more contextualised work than much of the earlier Bausch repertoire, containing regular elements of humour and a great deal of dance. The comedy comes in several shades – from the dark surreal one-liner, stand-up of the irrepressible, gravel-voiced ‘narrator’ Nazareth Panadero (“What is better – one big love or just a little love every day”) to knock-about, sexy visual jokes: Azusa Seyama tries to teach two guys to beat their personal best times in unhooking her bra (one succeeds while the other is sent for an early bath); Dominique Mercy (an outsider distant from all these activities) lies on the ground facing the audience and suddenly a piece of rope flicks over his thighs as if he possesses an excited animal’s tail; Helena Pikon squeezes lemon juice over herself before excitedly exclaiming “I’m a little bit sour”.

The dance in Vollmond is superb. I lost count of the number of outstanding solos we saw from across the cast, each of which articulated the inner character of the performer, such as the beautiful but yet strangely cautious work by Jasjfi and a frenetic, sexy solo by Julie Anne Stanzak dancing as if to save her life in a strapless, backless black gown (I don’t know why but her solo always reminds me of Anita Ekberg’s drunken striptease in La Dolce Vita). Then there is the dance of joy, led by the swaying Fernando Suels Mendoza who is joined after a few bars by the rest of the crew in a rhythmic, oscillating ode to the moon. It is a few moments of sheer Terpsichorean magic.

It has been said that Bausch’s repertoire might consist of just one long work, cut up into show-sized chunks, each of which contain the same or similar elements in eclectic world music, elegant gowns and close adherence to a structural choreographic pattern that arcs from strong solos to a processional, almost ritualistic ensemble routine and then often – as here – back to repeat initial sequences at the close. A few Bausch works fail to fit this pattern (Le Sacre du Printemps being the most obvious) but by and large it is a DNA that can be found in the genetic make-up of most of the Tanztheater Wuppertal repertoire.

Of course, what make it all the more formulaic is the ever-present cast with the same dancers sticking to their character across all these works. There was just one change in this ensemble from the cast at the premiere, almost seven years ago, with Pablo Gimeno replacing Kenji Tagaki. Although this is a work set on six men and six women, there appeared to be an extra male dancer on the stage at the end. Also, it seemed to me that one or two elements were cut from this performance, especially in the second act, but perhaps this is just a natural evolution over time?

The global success of Tanztheater Wuppertal has much to do with our comfortable familiarity with these performers, each squeezing such range out of the same simple characterisations. They are a Carry On-style ensemble with an intellectual accreditation, sharing the same bawdy humour, titillating sexiness and even the same stereotypical characters (Panadero for Kenneth Williams, Mercy for Charles Hawtrey ?!).

It is the continual, unfailing achievement of great collaborative design that hallmarks the Pina Bausch legend. Vollmond is quite possibly the jewel in the crown (though there a several other prime contenders) of this remarkable artistic dynasty that continues to astonish (although no longer to make new work) nearly four years after the great ringmaster’s death.

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

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