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Tanztheater Wuppertaal Pina Bausch


by David Mead

June 24, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

There are times in this World Cities season when, if it wasn’t for the title or the advertising, that you would struggle to identify the city at the heart of the work on stage. There are no such problems with “Nefés” (which means ‘breath’ in Turkish) even allowing for the fact that there is essentially no set. Indeed, Bausch’s long term designer Pablo Pabst once confided that he had been unable to capture Istanbul, that meeting place of Europe and Asia, of Muslim and Christian, of past and present.

But who needs huge stage-filling scenery? Right from the start Bausch makes it very plain that Istanbul, or at least Turkey, is where we are. A bare-chested man wrapped in a white towel ambles on stage. Another blows air into a sack filled with water and soap. Suds, lots of suds, follow. “This is me in a hammam,” he explains. It’s a reference that appears several times, including a rather less welcoming one where a scary female attendant barks “ticket” at another of the ladies.

There may be no scenery as such, but before too long it starts raining upstage, the falling water creating a huge pool, and in which those sitting upstairs could see some beautiful reflections of the dancers. Ghostly images of ripples on the water also appear from time to time on the otherwise black backcloth. The water serves various functions, including as a representation of the Bosphorus, that stretch of water that both links and divides continents, before eventually almost disappearing in front of us. A sign of the disappearing differences between East and West, maybe.

“Nefés” comprises Bausch’s usual collection of impressions, although they link together rather more fluidly than is often the case. Apart from the hammam, there is a scene set in a bazaar; another that sees two dancers dwarfed by projections of Istanbul’s crazy traffic, running back and forth as they try to dodge the onrushing vehicles; and one that involves Turkish delight.

The mix of East and West comes through, both in the music and in the action. Sensuous dance for the women often had an Eastern tinge, including some belly dance references. That contrasted with that for the men, often fast and frenetic with arms swirling all around the body, with the occasional very modern acrobatic street dance element thrown in for good measure. As in “Bamboo Blues”, it was Shantala Shivalingappa who really caught the eye. She is not only stunningly graceful and sensuous, she has incredible footwork, no doubt honed during her training in India, and an amazing turn of speed, often changing direction in the blink of an eye. The music meanwhile is an eclectic mix of Turkish, classical guitar, songs by Tom Waits, and even an Astor Piazzolla tango.

Food puts in its usual appearance. In one scene two women sit at the front of the stage eating pastries dipped in honey, which runs all over their hands and fingers. When they walked on, I’m sure those in the front row were expecting their usual share of the goodies, but not tonight.

Bausch also takes her usual look at male-female relationships, although here they are rather gentler than is usually the case. On the humorous side, I particularly enjoyed the one where a man, one side of the stage, beckoned to his lover, peeking out from the opposite wing to join him. When she does so, it is with her mother firmly in tow. Equally funny was the sight of another woman at the side of the stage, dancers crawling out from beneath her long gown. “One, two, three…nine, ten.”, she counts aloud. When they have all emerged she says, “My grandmother had ten children.” They laugh. We laugh.

More dreamy, surreal moments included the tiny Ditta Miranda Jasjfi carried backwards by a man as she tries to walk forwards. Think walking along a travelator going in the opposite direction to that you are walking in, and you get the idea. Another woman, with water bags balanced on a branch on her head, appears to climb a staircase, her feet walking in the hands on two men. The ladies also get swung around in any variety of ways, always with the loose hair flowing and dresses billowing. As in earlier Bausch works, the women are being manipulated, but here they seem very happy about it.

For once, Bausch also gives us a climax that really feels like a natural end. To Tom Waits’ ballad “All the World is Green”, the men come on stage in a chain, one at a time, shuffling, kneeling, turning along the floor. The women form a second line upstage in another chain, but with arms eating up the air. It was like two Greek friezes come to life.

Next stop: Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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