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

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)

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert hopes to catch the carnival spirit in the Brazilian street-dance spectacle Balé de Rua

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?