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Tanztheater Wuppertaal Pina Bausch

'Der Fensterputzer' (The Window Washer)

by Stuart Sweeney

June 19, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

Pina Bausch was a seminal force in dance and the theatre – we hold this truth to be self-evident. I remember seeing a black and white TV production of “The Green Table” by Kurt Jooss with Bausch, in her early 20's, playing The Old Woman – convincing and heart-breaking. The film of “Cafe Muller”, with emotionally scarred residents and Bausch as a sepulchral figure in the background, was as moving and gripping as any I have seen. And then we saw her “Rite of Spring”, a pure dance work of extraordinary power.

Now we have all 10 of her city works made in collaboration with city authorities around the world, as part of the London Olympic Culture Festival – an immense undertaking with some 40 lorries required to bring all the kit to London. We are told that in each work, Bausch would draw on the initial impressions of the cast to piece together their collective perspective. “Der Fensterputzer”, depicting the Bausch take on Hong Kong, was the second I have seen this season and the third overall, but for me the series accords with the law of diminishing returns. I have some sympathy for those who will see the complete set over a few weeks.

There are always positive aspects. The sets by Peter Pabst are memorable: high banks of sand on three sides of the stage in “Viktor” (Rome) and a mountain of red blossoms for “Der Fensterputzer”. There is much humour, indeed the short scenes moving rapidly before our eyes, sometimes take on the character of a TV sketch show; in “Viktor”, there is a scene in a café with some of the worst waitresses in the world, which independently mirrors the famous Victoria Wood sketch with Julie Walters. In “Fenster..” two female airport guards force a man to strip to his underpants, with laughter throughout the theatre.

And there are breath-taking dance segments from Tanzteater Wuppertal's excellent performers, especially in “Fenster..”. They are varied, suiting the skills of the individuals and show that Bausch never lost her ability to create riveting movement.

So what's the problem? I kept asking myself what the often seemingly disconnected vignettes told us about Hong Kong and life there: a man skiing down the flower mountain; two men fighting with pillows; an inverted man passing water from one bucket to another only for the water to be transferred back; a woman trying to reach the end of a table, repeatedly thwarted by a man lifting it to near vertical etc etc etc. Perhaps that there is a lot of meaningless though frantic activity; perhaps that woman are ill-used, as emerges from so many of her works; perhaps that the few examples we hear of Hong Kong popular music is ghastly? A sharper focus on the problems of people in his home town comes from Wong Kar-Wei's films, such as “Chungking Express” or “In the Mood for Love”.

The other problem is the length, averaging around three hours. With a myriad of short scenes, even with a wealth of theatrical business to catch our eye, there is simply far too much material. So what of the Bausch legacy? The audience response to both the shows I have seen to date has been rapturous. It may well be that I am missing the point in these celebrations of cities and humanity. I have no doubt that Bausch's “Rite of Spring” will still be performed 100 years from now; for works like “Der Fensterputzer” the future is less clear.

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