It’s often said that Pina Bausch redefined contemporary dance, but you only realize how radical her vision when you see a work like Kontakhof. The German dance maker, who died unexpectedly last summer, created the piece back in 1978, that is, relatively early in her career and long before the innovations of tanztheater became commonplace in contemporary dance. Bausch remade the work in 2002 for amateur performers over 64, and again in 2008 for teenagers aged 14 to 17, and while these non-professional juniors and seniors bring charm to the work, they also deepen its shadows.
Meaning meeting place, Kontakhof sees 27 men and women prepare for a night out at what looks like an old fashioned dance. Everyone is in their best clothes and romantic hopes are clearly high. However, Bausch quickly dispels all these with her steely reminder that however we long for intimacy, we often don’t get it, at least not the sort we want.
Her means are what we now regard know as classic Bausch. The women are in dresses, and the men in suits. The choreography is simple steps and gestures rather than “theatrical dance”, and the music is eerily old fashioned. Everyone has a slightly glazed look, which could be fatigue, boredom, or the effects of one too many drinks. All is unnervingly polished, from the performers and music to the sleek sets and crisp costumes.
The Barbican invited the Bausch company to perform the piece with both the older and younger dancers on alternating nights over the Easter weekend. At three hours each, this may have deterred even hard-core Bausch fans, but for those who persevered it was time well spent. Seeing the two one after each other accentuated the hopes of the young and the regrets of age. At times it was painful to watch – we hope that age will brings wisdom and resignation, but Bausch seems to say that this is rarely the case.
Not all Kontakhof was perfect. There were some uneven performances, and a lack of clarity in the second half. But apart from this, it is the most vibrant of theatre. Bausch reminds us that our lust for life endures even as we grow old. If that sounds gloomy, a lighter Bausch work can be seen at the Edinburgh Festival this summer. It’s called Agua, and was inspired by one of her visits to Brazil. The company are also at Sadler’s Wells in the autumn, meaning they will have visited the UK more in the year since Bausch died than they did in the last five of her life.