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Tanztheater Wuppertaal Pina Bausch

'Viktor'

by David Mead

June 6, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

After much anticipation, London’s four-week ten-work Pina Bausch World Cities season opened last night at a packed Sadler’s Wells. Like all of the works in the season, Viktor is about a city, in this case Rome. For me, it is always the overall mood and impression given by a city and its people that stick in the mind more than specific sights, and that is certainly true here. The only overt reference to the physical city are sanpietrini, the cube-shaped cobbles that form the surface of many of Rome’s streets, which at the beginning and from time to time thereafter, are carried on by a dancers. Do the stones represent baggage of some description? As with most things Bausch, she is not letting on; that is for us to decide.

“Viktor” is full of trademark Bausch symbols and themes: a huge set that fills the stage, men in suits, ladies in high heels and dresses, repetition, cross dressing, children’s games, interaction with the audience, humiliation…but it’s also a piece that makes numerous references to death. Indeed, the whole thing seems to be set inside a mass grave, the back and sides of the stage being dominated by 20 feet high mud walls, from the top of which a grave-digger slowly shovels earth onto the floor below throughout.

There are plenty more references to mortality. A man marries a pair of corpses as they lie prone on the ground, physically nodding their heads so they can say ‘I do’, manipulating their hands to so they appear to put rings on fingers, and finally turning them so they can kiss. Alongside this, a woman lays on a carpet, which is then rolled up and carried off. Later, one of the cast recounts a fairy tale in which a little girl is the sole survivor on earth, and so who travels to the moon and the sun and the stars, to find each equally rotten or lifeless. A comment on the city or the world, perhaps.

There is lots of comment about the way men treat women, although it should be noted that the women rarely fight back. They are carried and treated like mannequins. There is plenty of groping. One dancer is turned into a human classical fountain, her mouth repeatedly filled with water, which she then spurts, two men showering in the resulting spray. But sometimes it is self-inflicted, as in a comment on dance when a woman wraps raw meet around her toes, beef we are told, and stuffs her feet into ballet shoes and dances a classical solo on pointe; or maybe she is doing it for the men.

Although bleakness and desolation run through the piece, it has the effect of making the lighter moments even more striking. Playful or humorous moments do not exactly abound, but when they are worth waiting for. At one point, a dancer toys with a man sitting in a chair, repeatedly lifting her thin blue dress over his head, giggling like a child playing a game. One hilarious scene features three of the most slovenly waitresses you have ever seen, cigarettes drooping from their mouths, all hunched over with back problems, and who see their customer as an inconvenience. They make those in the famous Monty Python sketch look decidedly classy!

The second half is dominated by a hooded, hunched figure wrapped in black and carrying a staff that haunts the stage, and who at one point conducts a hilarious ballet class taught entirely while seated, and in which instructions are given with an uncaring, dismissive, bored wave of the arm. Another comment on how Bausch saw classical theatre dance, perhaps.

There are beautiful moments too, most notably when the women take it in turns to play on gymnastics rings to Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight”, their long evening dresses billowing as they swing back and forth. In fact, the music often seemed very important, casting a spell in even moments of near stillness. The Tchaikovsky at the beginning and end, when much of action is reprised briefly, particularly stood out.

In all this, there’s not really much of what most people would recognise as dance, although when it does come along it is very good. Often it comes in large, complex and gestural dance sequences, always in near perfect unison. Overall, though, there is a lot more theater than tanz, if you see what I mean.

There is so, so much else, not least an auction in which various accoutrements are sold off, including three small dogs. Well, you can’t take them with you, can you? A group of old men sit around a table talking, ignoring everything else going on. A couple engage in foreplay while smoking, a child taking sneaky unseen puffs, both memories of Bausch’s parents’ café as much as Rome, I feel sure. As always Bausch never passes opinion. She simply observes.

At almost three and a half hours including the interval, “Viktor” is long. I can quite imagine it would be hard going for many, with some finding it tedious in the extreme. Indeed, I’m not sure I would want it sit through it often. But it does cast a spell, and slowly but surely pulls you in.

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