Please believe that I try to give every production my full attention, to do due diligence, to blink and miss nothing. But when, halfway through Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Since She, one of the male dancers appeared on stage with cowbells attached to his willy, I’m afraid I spent a fair few minutes looking hard at my notebook.
The cowbells are not the strangest thing in this night of the grotesque. Since She is both danse macabre and Grand Guignol. A woodchipper whirrs at the back of the stage, the set is a mountain of mattresses. One man sniffs a sausage, another turns a spit. A woman defecates into an omelette, another is dragged across stage with wine glasses balanced on the fan of her hair. A man kneels on all fours in his boxer shorts, while his partner stands on his back on a chair. A dancer whips himself with palms, a woman hoicks up her skirt to the gusset and preens in suspenders and stockings. There is male buttock and female nipple and red bush. ‘Get that girl a vest,’ I thought at one point. Chilly rolling round in the nuddy on a cold Valentine’s night. All this is done with great solemnity and little purpose, more baffling than sexy.
Since She is the first full-length piece to be danced by the company founded by the late visionary choreographer Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1973. Bausch died in 2009. The ringmaster of this strange, anarchic circus is Dimitris Papaioannou,who founded Edafos Dance Theatre in Athens in 1986. With Since She, Papaioannou has created a piece of posturing portent. I looked in vain for a message: was that woman Eve created from Adam’s rib? Was the dancer pierced with rods St Sebastian? There are moments of riotous invention: a whirling, scrabbling, dizzying waltz on upturned tables; a scene of two boats punted on rollers; a dancer with centipede legs; a group photo in front of a gold-leaf screen lit by the flashing reflections from a spinning cymbal. But for the most part I wondered if we were being trolled. How much will the saps in the stalls swallow? All of it, apparently. Whoops from the auditorium and a semi-standing ovation. I felt like Queen Victoria.
Back to the Wells the following week, hoping for better, fearing the worst. After half an hour of Alan Lucien Oyen’s Bon Voyage, Bob, I was almost nostalgic for cowbells. Only another two-and-a-half hours to go! Oyen gives us a sequence of loosely disconnected vignettes. The themes are love, death, dreams and cigarettes. Characters whisper banalities into walkie-talkies or shout while slamming drawers. There are perhaps 25 minutes of what is recognisably dance in a production that is both manic and sepulchral. I found myself staring at the stopped clock on stage in a fury of boredom. Towards the end of the third hour a man piled chairs on stage and shouted: ‘This is shit. This is all shit.’ You said it, mate. Lear and Hamlet may run at length. From Bob, it is unforgivable indulgence.
While I’m usually the last person to bleat about trigger warnings, the callous, gratuitous, glib scenes of suicide were horrible to watch. If I’d been there as a punter, not a reviewer, I’d have gone home at half-time. Pity the critic who must stay to the curtain of Oyen’s odious, endless dross.