Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

Pina Bausch's Iphigenie auf Tauris, one of her earliest works, is rarely performed: created in 1973, it's only now receiving its London premiere.

That's partly because, as a dance staging of an opera, it requires a big double cast with orchestra and singers. It's also an unusual Bausch work, created before the physical theatre works that made her name. She's already stark, but in some ways unexpectedly polite.

Taking on Gluck's opera, she puts the singers in the pit, leaving the stage free for dancing. It has a curiously distancing effect. The singing is warm and vivid, while the dancing is chilly. Bausch creates bold images, but her characters don't interact much. When Iphigenie is finally reunited with her brother, she and their attendants stand stock still, leaving the music to handle the emotion.

The opera has a complex storyline, spun off from the story of the Trojan War. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenie to the goddess Diana in exchange for favourable winds to Troy. Here, Diana rescued Iphigenie, whisking her away to the island of Tauris, where she serves as Diana's priestess. Years later, Iphigenie's brother, Orest, comes to the island where the king, Thoas, plans to have him sacrificed.

In 1973, Bausch was working in a German theatre for a German-speaking audience; she could trust them to follow the libretto. For a London audience, it's not so simple. The dancer Iphigenie, played by Ruth Amarante, stands out at once, but it took me a while to sort the singing heroine out from the voice of Diana. Danielle Halbwachs sings Iphigenie with attack, while Mark Stone's Orest has a warm, steady tone. Jan Michael Horstman conducts a clear performance, with springy rhythms.

Bausch's staging is spare and uncompromising. The set, designed by Bausch together with Jürgen Dreier, is a bronze wall framed by white curtains and some very domestic props. When Agamemnon dies in his bath, it's a porcelain tub. The altar on which Iphigenie must sacrifice Orest is a kitchen table. The lighting is wonderful, framing the action in bleak white or stripes of gold.

Some of Bausch's imagery is immediately powerful. Orest, who has murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, is shown in a foetal position between her spread thighs. He and his friend Pylades, both marked for sacrifice, are first shown spreadeagled on the kitchen table. The tableaux are icy, but they're the strongest aspect of Bausch's choreography. She brings on choruses of women in skipping Greek dances, part-ancient frieze, part-Martha Graham.

There are traces of the surrealist Bausch to come, particularly with regard to King Thoas and his entourage. Thoas wears a huge leather overcoat, and has an unexplained sidekick, a man in evening dress with a painted face, who drags a wild-haired woman about.

Iphigenie auf Tauris shows an early Bausch, already sure in theatrical spectacle but without the fury of her later works. She tells her own story alongside Gluck's; it's often impressive – and often alienating.