It's odd, given London's status as a cultural capital, that it has made only the occasional nod to the phenomenon of Pina Bausch. Devotees of the theatrical innovator have had to travel to Paris, Berlin or Wuppertal to experience the range of her extraordinary shows. Rambling, oblique, maddeningly repetitive, violent yet often savagely funny, played out on stages piled with earth, or brick rubble, or fields of fake flowers, her work resists categorisation as dance, drama or installation art. Which is why the untranslated Tanztheater label has stuck.
Now, at last, London has a chance to catch up on two seminal productions from the 1970s, on one bill. Café Muller – extracts of which gained wider currency in Pedro Almodovar's 2002 film Talk To Her – is, nevertheless, a hard introduction. Brutally spare, almost unremittingly bleak, it presents adult relationships as viewed by an uncomprehending eye – specifically Bausch's as a child.
Rotating doors and grubby glass border a room cluttered with chairs and tables. Six characters come and go, alone or in pairs, in various states of emotional disarray. One woman sleepwalks, knocking into things as she pursues her sightless way. A man, frantic to save her from injury, flings chairs from her path.
Other oddballs include a tottering redhead who seems to be waiting or looking for something; a spectral female in pale nightie who drifts about, echoing the gestures of others, as if trying to make sense of them (this was to have been Bausch herself, but she was indisposed on opening night). A gaunt older man embraces the somnambulist, lifts and cradles her like a baby, then shockingly, carelessly drops her. The sequence is repeated over and over. Stop! You want to scream. But we are all stuck in behavioural tropes of our own making. The Purcell arias Bausch selects are all built on circular, repeating bass-lines.
The Rite of Spring comes almost as light relief. Of all Bausch's work, it's the most dancerly, most gorgeous. On thick brown earth, under golden light, male and female gangs respond muscularly, explosively, to Stravinsky's recorded score and its theme of biological imperative and ritual sacrifice. The performances are what make it: the gasping, sinew-wrenching commitment of every member of this rugged, mature-bodied company. Pursuing a feminist theme, though – put-upon womankind versus the thrusting, overbearing male – now seems, dare I say it, passé.
Sadler's Wells (0844-412 4300) until FridayReuse content