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Tanztheater Wuppertaal Pina Bausch

'Iphigenie auf Tauris'

by David Mead

October 27, 2010 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

Pina Bausch once said that she was “not interested in how people move, but in what moves them.” She was interested in feelings and emotional responses rather than actions themselves.

“Iphigenie auf Tauris,” created in 1974 when Bausch was just 34, may have been only the second work made for her then new company, but it perfectly demonstrates her view of dance, evident even at that early stage of her career. Based on an operatic reworking by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, the convoluted plot tells of Iphigenie, a priestess in exile and what happens following the arrival of two shipwrecked young Greeks, but who turn out to be Orest, her brother who has killed their mother but who she thinks is dead, and his friend Pylades.

As in later works, Bausch strips away layer after layer, laying bare human nature and the emotions that lie beneath the skin as she gets down to the essence of the drama. Every small gesture helps convey thoughts and emotions. The choreography illustrates the narrative and expresses the music and feelings of the protagonists rather than telling the story itself. That is left to the singers, with a soloist for each leading character and a chorus. Having it sung in German with no surtitles may have left some in the dark, although the theatre did print a comprehensive synopsis on the cast sheet, but it did further emphasise the focus on the inner self on the leading characters.

“Iphigenie auf Tauris” is arresting from start to finish. Iphigenie (Ruth Amarante) moves constantly as if in internal turmoil. She may appear independent and free, but she is clearly anguished at being the victim of fate and of having no choice in what she has to do. She moves back and forth. Gestures are repeated. Arms reach and clutch at the side. Her hair is tossed dramatically time and again. The ensemble scenes are especially dramatic. The other priestesses echo and magnify her movements and emotions making even the smallest shuffle, turn of the head or raising of the arms intensely powerful.

Bausch clearly draws on her background in German expressionist dance and the work of Martha Graham as she extracts every ounce of emotion from situations. “Iphigenie” also shows she was capable of beautiful and touching dance. Following the arrival of Orest (Pablo Aran Gimeno) and Pylades (Damiano Ottavio Bigi), they are seen laying on a table, limbs entwined, as if meat waiting to be carved. Given that they are to be murdered, that is effectively just what they are. The duet that follows was strong yet caring. The men’s helplessness and love for each other was clearly demonstrated as they wrote their emotions with their bodies in the otherwise near empty space. As in the rest of the work, the stark simplicity of Peter Pabst and the late Rolf Borzik’s set, be it rusting steel panels, white sheets, a bath, initially half hidden in the corner but that has a menace about it right from the beginning, or, as here, a plain wooden table and chairs, emphasised the tenderness in the dance.

The scene leading up to the planned execution of Orest is inspired. Now we realise why that bath, seen in a back corner early on, looked so chilling. Bausch uses silence and has her dancers line up looking for all the world like a modernist Greek frieze, mouths open in silent screams, to enhance the sense of what is about to happen. But then she recognises him and there is a happy ending, which comes as something of an emotional and dramatic anticlimax and does rather break the powerful spell that has held us for nearly two hours.

That Bausch managed to more than match such a powerful score that stirs the emotions says much about her talent, even all those years ago. “Iphigenie auf Tauris” truly imposes itself on the consciousness. It was a night to remember.

Looking ahead, and with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in London the same week, it was impossible not to speculate about what might happen to Bausch’s company in the future. Unlike the Cunningham company, for which Cunningham left strict instructions about how it was to be wound down after a final farewell tour, Tanztheater Wuppertaal is to continue with company members Dominique Mercy and Robert Sturm elected to lead it forward.

In the immediate future Mercy and Sturm will continue to perform only their founder’s work. But they are adamant that they do not want to become a museum. With the schedule for the next few years already planned, there is time to take stock. It is difficult to imagine any other company dancing Bausch’s work and new choreography will eventually surely be needed, although where that might come from is unclear. In the medium term, though, they have a way forward. And the company certainly looks on top form, both here and in “Vollmond” at BAM in New York earlier in the month. What a loss it would be if they ever followed the Cunningham company’s lead and disbanded.

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