Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch - Viktor, Sadler’s Wells, London


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Viktor starts with a woman stepping forward to face the audience. She seems to have no arms: they’re tucked away inside her red dress, its short sleeves gaping. The missing limbs are unnerving, but not as unnerving as her bright smile.

It’s a classic Pina Bausch moment, surrealism and social embarrassment wrapped up in a single image. Like most of this iconic German choreographer’s works, Viktor mixes dance, speech and strangeness, a jumble of ideas and images that can be powerful or exasperating or both.

Created in 1986, after a stay in Rome, Viktor changed Bausch’s working methods.  She began a series of works created after spending time in a particular city. World Cities 2012, part of this year’s cultural Olympiad, presents all ten of Bausch’s city works in a marathon run, from Viktor to …como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…, created before her death in 2009.

Rome may be the inspiration, but there are no explicit references to the city on stage. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix, from Tchaikovsky to 1930s dance music. Peter Pabst’s set surrounds the action with towering earth walls; a man prowls on top, brushing stray earth down onto the stage.

Bausch is preoccupied with relationships and appearances. A man and a woman are laid down on stage, side by side. A second man treats them as puppets in a marriage ceremony, arranging them in an embrace for “You may now kiss the bride”. Women stand on chairs, hitching up their skirts so a man can draw stocking seams down their bare legs. Men sit down to primp and put on makeup.

Randomness and repetition are part of the process, which makes Viktor a punishingly long show. For every sharply-observed sequence, there’s an outbreak of chaos, dancers shoving furniture about and screaming. Viktor ends with a repeat of the opening scenes – several of them, as if Bausch seriously plans to run the whole thing through again. It’s an exhausting thought.

Still, her world is utterly distinctive, and often funny. One couple sit together in silence. Then she tells him, with deep, gravel-voiced bile, that he’s charming company. Another woman brings on slices of veal, wraps them around her feet and puts on pointe shoes. She flutters about the stage, all romantic gestures, then stomps crossly off.

There are also happy moments. The dancers prepare jam rolls and cheerfully feed them to the audience. Women in evening dress swing on gymnastic rings. After so much self-consciousness and primping, they look incongruous but free.

World Cities 2012 continues until 9 July. 0844 412 4300.