And not an aria in sight

Pina Bausch strips a Gluck opera to the bone - and banishes the singers clear off-stage.
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"A performance at which the characters' entire happiness and entire sorrow consists of watching people dance around them." Almost one hundred years after Gluck wrote Iphigenie auf Tauris, Hermann Grimm summed up everything in late 18th-century French opera the composer had been struggling to supplant. Choreographing this revolutionary operatic masterpiece would therefore seem to run contrary to Gluck's avowed intent. Twenty-two years after its Wuppertal premiere, Pina Bausch's production, which finally stopped off at the Edinburgh Festival last week, may have disappointed those expecting new evidence of her unassailable position astride the cutting edge of contemporary dance theatre. Anyone else is likely to have been amazed.

On paper it ought not to work. Gluck stripped away the vocal excesses that bedevilled operatic performance practice of the period, forcing the singers to concentrate on conveying the ideas and emotions of the libretto (drawn from Euripides's tragedy). Bausch, however, divorces the singers from the action. Even Mark Morris came a cropper earlier in the festival when complementing each solo singer with a dancer in his Orfeo ed Euridice, thereby creating a split focus. Bausch places her singers in unlit auditorium boxes, leaving the stage clear for her company to dramatise the text with solo dancers in the four major roles.

It's a daring decision to place the vocal sound beyond the stage, but any initial doubts about Bausch's conception were overcome by the performance's cumulative power, which willed you to connect the two experiences. At times, it had the peculiarly stark, expressive quality of a silent film with a magnificent musical accompaniment.

From the opening orchestral storm, which parallels Iphigenia's horror at the murder of her father Agamemnon, Bausch's intentions were clear. Avoiding the redundant, self-defeating game of merely illustrating the words - the great danger when choreographing text - she used the dancers to embody the drama. She was clearly influenced by Martha Graham (especially her signature work Lamentations), most obviously in the tension and release of Malou Airaudo's wonderfully expressive Iphigenia, hair flying about her, body in plie, arms imploring and outstretched. Her control of stage space was thrilling, particularly in the handling of Orestes (Dominique Mercy) and Pylades (Bernd Marszan), either in repose, entwined upon a tiny table, their almost naked bodies scalded in light, or in full flight at opposite corners of the vast Edinburgh Festival Theatre stage. Similarly, the tiny figure of a priestess simply carrying white sacrificial flowers diagonally across the stage in silence had a rapt, awe-inspiring intensity that was all about the simple power of a body moving through space.

The problems began and ended on the musical side. The conducting was insipid and, although Christine Brewer as Iphigenia attacked her four great arias with vigour, she sounded hard and unyielding. The men, too, sounded characterless and distinctly under pressure - although this may in part have been to do with fighting the unusual acoustic.

Arch traditionalists are forever lambasting directors for not following a composer's instructions. By disregarding Gluck's staging requirements and reinventing the work, Bausch remains truer to the spirit of the work than conventional productions, seizing its passionate, devotional heart and opening it up for all to see. Inspired and inspirational.