Pina Bausch, the German choreographer who invented a new form of dance drama, died three years ago, but her company lives on in Wuppertal and around the world. “Good morning, thank you,” says a simpering geisha in a floral dress. “I would like to make a big dragon.”
And away we go in this strange, wilful and beguiling postcard from Hong Kong, one of ten pieces by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in their World Cities 2012 season presented at Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican in association with Cultural Industry.
Each piece, usually three hours long, is the result of a residency or festival visit in a foreign city. As Peter Pabst, the designer, says, Hong Kong is one of those places that knocks people over with lasting impressions, and here are huge shiny advertisements, street walkers, rhapsodic jazz interludes, a jungle walkway, fireworks, depilation centres and roaring aeroplanes overhead.
The stage is dominated by a mountain of luminous red blossoms which serves as a sort of human anthill, a focus for ensemble scenes of party-throwing and expeditions, with the suspended, isolated window cleaner – who has obviously seen it all – skiing down the side of it after he has made his way through customs and stripped to his underpants to pass through the metal detectors (the metal’s in his teeth).
That last scene is typical of the Bausch method: an epic scenario of non-existent linear narrative refined down to moments of exquisite brutality and obsession: a manic waiter taking orders for drinks in the audience (and bringing them); a bony transsexual (is she?) walking precariously along a sloping table and sliding down again; a speech about bad breath by a raddled usherette; a sit-down company jive to a joyous boogie woogie.
Physically fascinating and hypnotically attractive, the company is full of strong individual characters, several of whom were in the company when I discovered them at the Adelaide Festival in 1982, before they first came to London. The usherette, Mechtild Grossman, is one of them; 62 year-old Dominique Mercy, who executes an unbelievable jazz solo and is the company’s new co-director, another.
Once you’ve seen Pina Bausch, you are spoilt for most other things and companies in the “physical” or dance drama department. Nothing else is as good, as technically impressive or proficient, as strange, as moving, or as sexy. Shall we say farewell Forced Entertainment, nice try Matthew Bourne, or come again Punchdrunk?
The Window Washer (1997) is by no means the best of their work. But the scenes and the silhouettes burn themselves on your retina, and you are lost in their world for a few hours and changed, when you emerge, for ever. Pina, like Mark Morris, is always a great DJ: this show has Indian, Romanian and Mexican music, Fado, Iranian guitar music and Dizzy Gillespie. Even the costumes are sensational.