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

Performance: 8 & 9 July 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 9 July 2012

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch 'Wiesenland'Julie Shanahan and Michael Strecker Photo: Bettina Stöß

Reviewed: 8 July

Whoever set the schedule for this World Cities season could not have chosen a more relevant finale. ‘Wiesenland’ is German for “meadow” and Peter Pabst’s amazing set includes a large and very wet tract of verdant vegetation, which we first encounter vertically, forming the façade of a cliff at the back of the stage and then, through some nifty hydraulics, horizontally, as an undulating meadow. What could better encapsulate the state of this British summer than a sodden landscape! Adding even more poignancy was the fact that many people had arrived at Sadler’s Wells hotfoot from watching Andy Murray lose to Roger Federer in the rain-interrupted Wimbledon final.

Alongside the steady flow of water, there is also a downpour of imagery, particularly in the opening part, where the multi-layering of episodes is particularly intense. Long sequences are roughly interrupted and different strands of activity are often super-imposed so that two or more are developing simultaneously. This layering is not uncommon in Bausch’s repertoire but it seems to be more overt and more frequent in Wiesenland. The work is between 30 and 50 minutes shorter than all but one of the other nine World City pieces and yet it seems that it might contain as much action, given this overlay of scenes.

It is hardly unusual for the episodes in any Bausch work to be described as sexy and funny, but in Wiesenland the balance seem to be sexier and funnier, perhaps because the sinister and melancholic themes are not so prevalent. There is certainly the undercurrent of women unsuccessfully seeking love or affection, which is a thread that flows through much of Bausch’s work. We encounter this theme at the outset when Helena Pikon (the dancer who reminds me most of Bausch herself) enters carrying a tray with drinks and lit candles: but this potential prelude to a romantic tea-for-two is dashed when a man pours a bucket of water over her. Drenched, but undeterred, she continues to profer the tray towards the audience. This is but one of many encounters that suggest the woman’s desire for romance is countered by the man’s disdain or disregard. In a later scene, a flirtation takes a strange deviation when, mid-stride, the man wallops both his paramour and himself on the head with a rolled-up newspaper and as they fall to the ground in an embrace it seems that this might have been the only way to achieve that intimacy.

Sleeping – either alone or as a couple – is a leit motif that runs through the show. A woman is invited to lie down several times but jumps to her feet before the man can cover her with a sheet; two women are wheeled on, smoking while reclining in a mobile bunk-bed; another woman lies down, peels her slip over her head and then covers herself in a soaking wet sheet. In every case, it is not so much sleep that is the issue but an inability to do so comfortably. One can only assume that Pina and her crew had a restless time in Budapest.

I mention Budapest merely in passing, since Wiesenland was a co-production with the Goethe-Institut of that city (along with the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris) but any obvious references to Hungary are infinitesimal and occur exclusively in occasional references in a wonderful, eclectic soundtrack that is typical of Bausch’s work.

Perhaps the sexiness and fun of Wiesenland gains further traction through the romantic idea of frolicking in the meadow; of childish games and picnics, both of which come together in a trademark Bausch celebratory meal in the second part where the boys leap on the table, have the cloth pulled from under them and pull seats from under diners. The habitual hair washing is also present, each part ending with the women kneeling and smoking while water is poured by the men: the women take a drag from the cigarette and then thrust their heads into the “waterfall”. In a host of absurd images, the stand-out number is when Andrey Berezin (here, more than ever, the lone man on the sidelines), dressed ridiculously as some sort of travelling showman in a red, glittery suit and smoking a cigar, arrives with a barrow that turns out to be a mobile chicken coop, complete with hens. Unlike the obedient dogs of earlier works in this series, the hens refuse to play ball and firmly stick to the cart they arrived in, rebuffing any attempt to get them down the ramp and into the makeshift pen!

Many of my personal favourites in the Bausch ensemble are not cast in Wiesenland but the enormous strength of this group rises well above any individual charismas. Punctuating events was the subtle, sinewy and occasionally explosive dancing of the troupe in a series of solos and an occasionally surprising duet. Looking through the cast list, I was reminded that Fernando Suels Mendoza (who is responsible for much of the humour) has been ever-present through the ten productions.

Many of us, concerned about the future of the Arts in the United Kingdom, will – at some point over the past seven years – have looked at the billions of pounds being spent on the Olympic Games and despaired that the inevitable impact of this must be to reduce the slice of the cake coming to the arts. This feast of ten works by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch is the icing and the cherry on top of the London 2012 Festival and the £2m that this World Cities season is costing to mount couldn’t have happened without the Olympics.

So, in the year when virtually every nation state will come to London to compete against each other, it is so vitally important that ten of them have been represented in this most thought-provoking and often breath-taking dance theatre. Small mercy is hardly an appropriate way to describe anything by Pina Bausch but we should be grateful to the Olympic Games for bringing us this unique Festival as an offshoot of the main event. For some of us, this has been THE main event of London 2012.

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

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