Dance: A legend in her own company

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The Independent Culture
Pina Bausch

Sadler's Wells, EC1

A glamorous woman in a sleeveless dress casts a confident gaze on the audience. "Go on, admire me," her shining eyes seem to be saying. "Am I not a magnificent specimen of womanhood?" She waits. The audience waits. It's as if she's expecting paparazzi to arrive, or perhaps for us to ask why she's so radiantly happy. She waits, radiantly; we wait, with increasing discomfiture because - and we can't pretend we haven't noticed - this woman has no arms.

The woman's male companion arrives to slip a fur coat over her shoulders and usher her away. Her limbless state obscured, the image is svelte, familiar, OK. We feel relief, curiously tinged with shame for feeling that relief; then later, another kind of relief that, well, at least we're not so absurdly hung up as to deny that we felt relieved in the first place.

This series of moral knee-jerks is in no way diminished by knowing that in reality the performer had two perfectly good arms strapped behind her back. It's disorienting, as intends. She takes offcuts of our smoothly-surfaced modern world, then plucks at stray threads to unravel the seams. Her work is meant to throw us off balance. It can also be amusing and uplifting along the way. The prickle of emotion this first cameo stirs is nothing to the truckload of mixed feelings you take home at the end of the three-and-a-half hour epic that is Viktor, a kind of psychotherapy collage typical of what Bausch has been producing for 25 years.

Viktor is not new; it was first performed in 1986. But seeing as it is now 17 years since her group Tanztheather Wuppertal paid its last visit to London, Bausch considered it new enough for us. Perhaps she regards it as a kind of primer: it's certainly less gruelling than Nelken, seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1996, in which sadistic mind games and humiliating dreams are played out on a field of pink carnations, patrolled by Alsatians and uniformed guards.

The physical environment dominates here, too: the stage is banked on three sides by a 20ft earthwork, a towering structure of real soil which, at minor-key moments, is made to disintegrate little by little, crumbling upon the edges of the performing space with a soft, funereal patter. A trench for war? A freshly dug grave? An excavation? It's all these things. And, though there's no acknowledgement by the performers of the pit they're in, for the spectator its glowering presence colours every action. Their world, our world, is gradually caving in.

Those expecting dance from Tanztheater are often surprised to find so little, despite the fact that Bausch's 30-strong troupe are ballet-trained and possessed of the stamina of navvies. But choreographed movement is only one of the tools in this director's kit. When, in Viktor, a woman performs a lubricious classical solo with raw steak peeping from the tops of her pointe shoes, it comes across not as dance for its own sake, but a nod to formalised expression of any kind. It's saying: there's pain involved in art; in fact, there's pain everywhere you care to look. Other fragments of choreography show the flipside: most memorably, a link-chain of revellers, smooching to 1930s popular songs.

As with all things avant-garde, it's easy to latch on to accepted opinion, much harder to question it. It's now standard copy that is the most revered and imitated force in European post-war theatre: viz Ballett Frankfurt, DV8, Robert LePage. The Sadler's Wells season sold out weeks ago because she is "a legend". Yet some of Bausch's targets are beginning to look rather obvious, not to say old hat - the destructive sexualising of women with their cleavages and high heels; the inability of the sexes to communicate on things that matter, the blotting out of uncomfortable truths.

Bausch's brilliance is in orchestrating hundreds of disparate cameos and sketches into a single stream of creative thought: her performers are magnificent in their clarity and commitment. But I take issue with anyone, legendary or otherwise, who leans so heavily on music to provide the emotional narrative, yet credits neither the composers nor the sources of the extraordinary sounds she exploits: Tchaikovsky symphonies, Buxtehude psalms, Breton mouth music, Andean pipes and Slavic stomps. All go to feed the legend. A jot of humility would not go amiss. For me, it was the music, not the men in lipstick, that was pushing all the buttons.