Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1980, A piece by Pina Bausch.  Photo © Ulli Weiss

Tanztheater Wuppertal in ‘1980: A Piece by Pina Bausch’.
Photo © Ulli Weiss

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; February 8, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Watching ‘1980: A Piece by Pina Bausch’ is rather like watching a carpet of foam in a breeze: it moves for a while, then nothing happens. Bubbles arise and pop on occasion, and colours come and go. It’s mesmerising for a while but not really for three and a half hours.

There are recurring themes, some amusing, some contemplative. Motifs bloom and die. One or two individual characters stand out – the pushy, loud Australian, the grating German with the 60-a-day voice, the slender, suave German, elegant even when still. Bausch is very keen to showcase the nationalities employed in the Company and to satirise stereotypes.

One motif which occurs early on and is repeated several times sees the dancers parading in a sort of conga line whilst performing a sophisticated version of a hand jive. Such is the adoration of the Pina Bausch acolytes that a couple in the row behind me couldn’t resist joining in – accurately as it turned out. That was perhaps the most amusing and subversive moment of all as the audience ‘interaction’ is otherwise, as is usual with this sort of thing, one-sided and in the control of the performers whether that be offering cups of tea around the stalls, thrusting their faces into the front row and shouting or the usual singling out for general humiliation.

I did wonder for a while if the woman next to me was a plant. She certainly joined in with the spirit of the thing as she first inhaled wine very noisily and then exhaled the fumes generously, fiddled with her mobile telephone, spent a good five minutes applying lip gloss and, far worse than the usual rustling bag of sweets, crunched a plastic bottle between resonant slurps. Mercifully (and I have some sympathy for this) she also allowed herself a long snooze as the first hour limped into the second.

Tanztheater Wuppertal in '1980: A piece by Pina Bausch'. Photo © Ulli Weiss

Tanztheater Wuppertal in ‘1980: A piece by Pina Bausch’.
Photo © Ulli Weiss

There is so much business on stage that it is impossible not to identify with various aspects of it. Some of the characters become quite engaging even if it is in an irritating way. Lots of it however seem merely self-indulgent and could easily be presented in half the time or developed so that there is some sense of progression to give a shape to the evening. It felt at times as if we were being forced to watch an extended audition process mixed with an EST session: performers ran to the microphone and shouted three items that typified their nationalities, they were press ganged into a kick line, a parody of a beauty contest, exposed their legs and gabbled a tongue twister, marched to the back and yelled their worst fears to an interrogator bawling from the auditorium.

The music is eclectic but with an awful lot of repetition. Especially grating was a counter tenor singing the Willow song (attributed erroneously in the programme to Twelfth Night – it’s Othello). Actually, one of the most interesting moments came with the use of Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow first as a 16 year old (playing a few years younger) and then in one of her final performances. It never ceases to shock when a little girl’s speaking voice changes to the sound of a 40 year old as she sings and then, when she had actually just turned 47 before her death to hear the ravages that time had wrought on her tone and phrasing (but not on her performing power). Quite took my mind away from the stage.

Bausch also seems to have an obsession with making the men roll their trousers down to their ankles after which they are usually humiliated by the women. Maybe she is trying to turn the tables.

There is no doubt that there is a large and loyal audience who laughed and lapped it up throughout, but for me it came perilously close to the emperor’s new clothes after an hour and a half or so.

No one actually danced.