Tanztheater Wuppertal / Pina Bausch, Sadler's Wells, London
Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Barbican Theatre, London
These are unquestionably giants of modern dance, but what contrasts these performances reveal
Sunday 31 October 2010
Two greats of contemporary dance – no, more than that: of art, of ways of seeing – left this mortal coil the summer before last.
Shuffling is not a thing either Pina Bausch (born 1940) or Merce Cunningham (born 1919) could ever be said to have done. Both were prolific, both mould-breakers. Both, in their polar-opposite ways, found their path early and didn't deviate from it, creating work after idiosyncratic work with a determined vision that was easy for detractors to poke fun at, impossible for their imitators to come near. A neat coincidence, then, that both have been feted in major London theatres in the same week; one represented by her earliest major achievement, the other represented by his last.
Pina Bausch was never a great one for steps, declaring that she was less interested in how people moved, so much as what moved them. For this reason alone, her bold project (she was only 34) to turn a Gluck opera into dance-opera had a logic to it. Gluck, too, had been an innovator, homing in on feelings rather than actions. In his Iphigenie auf Tauris, a treatment of Euripides' drama from 400BC, each solo voice is a mouthpiece for the character's doubts and fears. And there are plenty of those in this desperate, blood-soaked yarn. This is a royal family so dysfunctional that even the surviving children intermittently lose track of which of their dastardly kin did what to whom, who's next to be avenged, and even who's still living, a few years down the line.
In principle, then, Bausch's task was to cut a clean swathe through plot convolutions that make the most hysterical episodes of EastEnders look calm and reasonable. And this she largely does – though it still takes a 500-word synopsis for most of us to make sense of it all (Euripides' audiences would have known the ins and outs by heart, just as EastEnders audiences do). It would have helped if the management of Sadler's Wells had thought to give us enough light to read it.
That said, the stage is bracingly uncluttered, the singers literally sidelined by having them sing from seats in the slips, leaving only their dance-avatars on view. Key personalities burn with intensity, their movements seeming to burst out of them like unfettered thoughts, far removed from naturalism, but just as far removed from decorous, decorative dance. Iphigenie herself, embodied by dark, sultry Ruth Amarante, moves constantly, yet the material boils down to a few simple gestures (a fierce reaching arm, a pained clutching at her side, the use of her mane of hair as if it were a fifth limb) redeployed in different combinations.
Essential bits of action are pared to a spareness that makes their effect more terrible. The murder of Agamemnon in his bath happens almost in parenthesis, silent and swift. Ditto Orestes' topping of his mother, with a stab so economical she hardly disturbs the dust as she crumples. This downplaying makes the shock all the greater when Bausch suddenly slows the pace for her big set-pieces, the first a scene between Orestes and his friend which has the pair splayed naked on a table under a golden light, at once specimens of glorious Grecian youth and chunks of hacked meat as in a painting by Francis Bacon. Even at this embryonic stage of her career, Bausch was mistress of image, mistress of space, capable of stalling time.
And so to Merce Cunningham who, in calling his last creation Nearly Ninety, seemed to be hinting that his number might soon be up. Brought to London by Dance Umbrella, as part of a year-long world tour before the Merce Cunningham Dance Company winds down for good (typically, he laid meticulous plans for this, too), the first half is as fresh and startling as anything he made in the preceding 60 years.
Steps, for Cunningham, were the be all and end all. "There's no thinking involved in my choreography," he said. "When I dance, it means this is what I am doing."
And in Nearly Ninety you sense the man's lifelong joy in the myriad possible permutations of the articulate human form. Dressed in attractive piebald leotards, with elegant black-gloved hands, his 14-strong, creamily athletic troupe crouch, stretch, skitter and balance their way through his precision-challenges: the same as ever, really, yet also never the same.
As a point of principle, as always, they pay no heed to the burbling music being created behind them, from a fabulous spaceship-like structure which also supplies real-time video from hidden cameras. As so often, though, Cunningham's enthusiasm for his own ingenuity manages to outdo mine. First half: stunning. I just wish he'd stopped there.
'Iphigenie auf Tauris': last performance today (0844-412 4300)
Jenny Gilbert hopes to catch the carnival spirit in the Brazilian street-dance spectacle Balé de Rua
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If you're not already angry about the migrant crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
- 2 David De Gea: Manchester United goalkeeper's £29m move to Real Madrid off - because paperwork 'not done in time'
- 3 Pansexual: What is it - and when did the term gain popularity?
- 4 Netherlands to withdraw food and shelter from failed asylum-seekers after just 'a few weeks'
- 5 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
X Factor hopeful Mason Noise: 'How is Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the music business, let alone a judge on the show?'
Wes Craven dead: Why Johnny Depp owes his career to director’s 13-year-old daughter
Trevor Noah, Edinburgh Fringe review: New Daily Show host warms up in inspired style
VMAs 2015: You can already buy ‘Kanye West for president’ t-shirts
VMAs 2015: Taylor Swift and her buddy Kendrick Lamar clean-up at awards - full list of winners
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
UN investigating British Government over human rights abuses caused by IDS welfare reforms