Perhaps the difference between a good choreographer and a great one is that death has no dominion over the latter.
The earthly demise of Pina Bausch last July seems not to have impinged one jot on the validity of the comment: "I saw Pina Bausch the other night." Bausch remains synonymous with her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. She remains synonymous, too, with a style of dance theatre that doesn't have much to do with dancing.
Filled with a brooding sense of the past – by which we understand, by implication, Germany's past – Bausch's works typically take the form of an obliquely psychoanalytical sketch-show. Dressed formally, as if for an evening out in the 1940s, her performers parade – sometimes literally – their secret frustrations and desires, emit fragments of verbal confession or enact dreamlike scenarios, often involving sexual violence. The chief mode of movement is a stately walk.
In memory of Bausch, the Barbican has presented two versions of one of her earliest works, Kontakthof. Conceived in 1978 for professional dancers, Bausch herself revised the piece much later for a cast of local amateurs, first for "ladies and gentlemen over 65", then for teenagers, the same material assuming very different resonances. The Barbican run opened with the oldies.
Kontakthof means "a place to make contact, to meet", and Ralf Borzak's set suggests a municipal town hall of the immediate post-war period, with its curtained platform, metal chairs and upright piano. Seated obediently around the perimeter, the 27 retired people might be assembled for a tea dance or whist drive. But what happens is stranger by far.
First comes an identity parade, as each comes forward to display their teeth, their calves or the backs of their hands – a routine that triggers any number of possible meanings. Is this an audition, with the audience as casting director? Are these people trying to prove they're still fit for work? Or free of old concentration camp brandings? As the parade goes on, and on (Bausch always pushes repetition beyond comfort), notions of vanity, need for approval and the indignities of age bubble to the surface.
Later sequences continue to shine a spotlight on the variousness of the human animal: the beaky old codger, the still sexy older woman, the baggy harridan, the spry and handsome gent. You find yourself pondering (and Bausch surely intended this), the life histories of individuals. What brought this provincial hausfrau/ex-bank manager to submit themselves to this bizarre theatrical catharsis?
Much of what ensues is childish and not very funny: a man chases a woman, brandishing a dead mouse, characters tweak or goose one another in humiliating games, a woman begs coins from the audience to operate a fairground ride – astride that pony, lost in girlhood memory perhaps, she finds the only true serenity of the evening.
At three hours, such apercus seem hard won, and the music (old tango and waltz records) drives you insane with its repetitions. How much better to cut the show in half and present youth and age cheek by jowl.
Jenny Gilbert relives the supreme dance-musical experience of the last 20 years: Mark Morris's setting of Handel/Milton's L'Allegro, il Moderato ed il Penseroso