Last Wednesday two of the three live pooches that appeared in Pina Bausch’s Viktor did onstage what most dogs do when in a state of arousal. The incident, which elicited a great deal of audience laughter and repressed giggles on stage, would have amused the late Bausch. First seen in 1986, Viktor was the first of the many city-specific works that Bausch created and on which the current World Cities 2012 retrospective (at Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican) focuses. Viktor’s rhapsodic and episodic narrative comes from the theatricalisation of memories each member of the Tanztheater Wuppertal had of their experiences in a particular location.
Viktor is about Rome, though not the Rome one sees in travel books, postcards or holiday snaps. Bausch had a special relationship with the Italian capital, one of the first European cities to host regular seasons of her work. Viktor, therefore, is Bausch’s own tribute to Rome, but a tribute that never glosses over its darker facets. Hence the kaleidoscopic merry-go-round of images that shifts from the comic to the tragic, via the ironic and even the absurd — as in the case of the ballerina filling her point shoes with veal steaks, also caught on film by Wim Wenders. Those in the know might appreciate the vibrant choreographic depiction of one of the many small fountains found in the city, or the appearance of the sanpietrini, the cobblestones that pave some of its ancient roads and were used as weapons in historic moments of unrest. Yet there is more to Viktor than a spotting-the-reference game. Gender issues are dealt with in the typical Bauschian way, with exaggerated manipulation of bodies, cross-dressing and an accent uation of the strengths and weaknesses of each gender. The various images, moreover, are linked by other Bauschian signature ideas, such as the inevitable line of dancers moving to the tune of a catchy ballroom ditty, or choral moments which develop from a basic gesture into a compositionally complex and theatrically stunning dance.
The idea of a season that moves chronologically from the earliest to the latest of Bausch’s city-specific works is a good one, for it allows viewers — whether or not they be established fans of Bausch — to follow the development of what has been a trailblazing approach to performance-making. Having seen Viktor when it was first created and a few times since, I could not help finding last week’s performance tired and tiring at times. What it lacked, in my view, was the hypnotising sense of seamlessly continuous action found in all the previous performances I eagerly attended. Whether such lack of theatrical flow is a result of Bausch’s revisions of the work since I last saw it or, more simply, stems from the work becoming dated, it is difficult to say.
Retrospectives seem to be trendy these days. More than two weeks ago, I managed to catch one of the last performances of Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures, which celebrated 25 years of the choreographer’s work. Spitfire, the memorable send-up of male vanity and of the famous Romantic success Pas de Quatre, proved as fresh as ever and had me, and many others, in stitches. I found Town and Country slightly less fresh, even though it stands out for a number of ideas, many of which were to inform later and more famous creations. Alas, its rather overwhelming length and reiteration of choreographic formulae impinged on the appreciation of both the slick humour and the not-so-slick naughtiness of The Infernal Galop — a very British look at French popular culture, strategically placed at the end of the triptych. But the programme is a must for those who want to explore the roots of Bourne’s creativity, the way he developed his distinctive movement vocabulary and his fascination with choreographic and filmic citations.
Past successes are also at the core of the current Royal Ballet’s season, which started with recent acquisitions — Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina and La Sylphide — and will conclude with historical successes such as Nijinska’s 1923 Les Noces and Frederick Ashton’s 1976 A Month in the Country.
The performance of Ballo della Regina I attended starred a radiant, technically perfect Marianela Nuñez, surrounded by a not so perfect and lacklustre corps de ballet. Lukewarm dancing and poor acting were also what I saw in La Sylphide, which shares the bill with Ballo. I only hope that I went on an ‘off’ day and so reserve judgment.