Contrary to some claims, the late Pina Bausch did not invent Tanztheater.
Contrary to some claims, the late Pina Bausch did not invent Tanztheater. Nor did all her productions stick to the mind-boggling aesthetic she is universally known and remembered for. Just look at the Iphigenie auf Tauris she created in 1974, shortly after being appointed director of dance for the Wuppertal theatres.
Although the germ of what eventually bloomed as Bausch’s own Tanztheater is detectable in this dance–opera, pure dance still reigns supreme; the choreography is not as rhapsodic as it is in her later creations, and the only words one hears are those delivered — more or less beautifully — by the singers.
Gluck’s work, presented here in the German or ‘Vienna’ 1781 version, was indeed the first opera-based performance that Bausch created with great success. This production remains dramaturgically faithful to the original text and line, without ever succumbing to the visual metaphors of her reading of Gluck’s Orpheus. The plot is not easy to follow, especially without the surtitles that these days accompany every operatic performance. Although a quick look at the synopsis can help, the dancing is so utterly compelling that any dependence on the original text becomes almost superfluous.
As in other early and fully-danced works, Bausch’s superb use of the score is intoxicating. The work is not yet 40 years old, and the movement vocabulary comes across as an imaginative complement to the music, conducted by a masterly Jan Michael Horstmann. Reiterations, a signature feature of Bausch’s later oeuvre, are employed only as leitmotifs and add greatly to the psychological make-up of each principal character. Yet as enthralling as the various solos, duets and trios can be, it is in the deployment of the dancing chorus that Bausch’s art can be appreciated in full.
Last Wednesday’s performance demonstrated that, even without Bausch at the helm, the Tanztheater Wuppertal is still able to impress, mesmerise and keep her legacy alive. But I could not help finding that this restaging of Iphigenie differed considerably from the one I saw in Edinburgh a few years ago. Beyond the sheer lusciousness of the choreography and drama, this new staging seemed, at times, to lack the vibrant, though subtle, shadings that underscored the Edinburgh performance — at least in my memory and in that of other seasoned viewers. What I felt to be missing was the juxtaposition of those earthbound, gravity-dense ideas typical of Bausch and the more aerial, almost balletic ones that characterised her early works.
It is difficult to say whether such lack of contrast was the result of the company’s new aesthetic choices or, more simply, of the technical abilities and physical make-up of a new generation of performers. Indeed, Bausch’s Tanztheater was never overly body-conscious, and one of its theatrical strengths was using non-stereotypical dancing physiques. Somehow, what I saw moved away from all this, confronting viewers with a display of conventional beauty that challenged long-held views and well-established notions of what Tanztheater should look like. All in all, with the exception of the much-missed shadings mentioned above, such a challenge was not a bad thing. It elicited a good deal of thinking and rethinking, as well as a good deal of discussion on the way out, after a well-deserved thunderous ovation. Something the impenetrable Bausch would have cherished.