Pina Bausch World Cities, Sadler's Wells & Barbican Theatre

The colourful caravan slips on silkily through Calcutta and Hong Kong

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The Independent Culture

Eight down, two to go. Pina Bausch's monumental World Cities cycle – 10 works for the stage each inspired by a great city, staged as part of London 2012 – has just clocked up Hong Kong and Calcutta. For those with deep pockets and serious stamina (most shows have run at nearly three hours), not to mention foresight (the entire season sold out a year ago), this armchair-travel experience has done more than just broaden the mind.

For this is not the snapshot tourism beloved of travel agencies – there are no rickshaws in Bausch's Hong Kong, no holy cows in her Calcutta – and not because these would be tricky to suggest on a stage: clichés are a doddle. No, having mingled with the local populations for months at a time, Bausch found deeper and subtler insights, translating these in her unique style – part dance, part sketch show, part stage tableau.

Der Fensterputzer (The Window Cleaner), was inspired by Hong Kong in 1997 – midway through the 23-year cycle which became progressively less pessimistic, less interested in cruelty, more interested in laughter and love, and in the power of pure dance to suggest these things. The Hong Kong piece is certainly spectacular, set (by Peter Pabst) amid a 12ft mountain of scarlet peony blossoms, which the performers climb, burrow into, ski down and fling into the air as fireworks.

Equally spectacular is the titular window-washing scene, in which a man suspended in a hydraulic cradle wields his scrim on the side of a skyscraper, apparently sandwiched between glistening, semi-transparent layers of neon advertising. There is no point being made here: it's pure stage picture. Hong Kong's service industry becomes a bit of a theme, though, as a man insistently offers to fetch refreshments for members of the audience with an enthusiasm out of all proportion to the task. "A banana!" he yells, racing on from the wings brandishing an item ordered 20 minutes earlier. Either you love Pina Bausch for her baroque craziness, or you never return. Der Fensterputzer is a test case.

Bamboo Blues, created in Calcutta in 2007, is another world entirely, shot through with light and sensuality. Where Bausch might have homed in on traffic-choked streets and poverty, instead she offers us a balmy breeze which buffets the calico curtains that suffice as a set, and a succession of lissom solo dances in which ravishingly gowned women swirl in a silky vortex to oblivion.

Hair – women's hair – is a feature in all Bausch's work, a signifier not just of femininity, but of female power. Here, women not only use it as a fifth limb, but wash it, stroke it and weigh it – a nod to the trading value, in India, of all human material. There are darker hints, too, of a woman's place in Calcutta: a fugitive from a marriage repeatedly and recklessly flings herself over a chair to elope with a waiting lover; another dances with a paper tissue covering her face – a literally veiled reference to acid attacks. "I dream of flying" declares the glamorous star of a Bollywood romance. Then she corrects herself: "I dream of flying … and cooking, and cleaning."

Season continues to 8 July

Critic's Choice

The Big Dance is a biennial, nationwide festival that just got huge, with events in parks, car parks, walkways and city squares – places you don’t expect to find an organised gathering of any kind, let alone a ballet taster class, say, a screening of a Fred Astaire film, or a public zumba workout. Most events are free, Sat to 12 Jul (bigdance2012.com).

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