Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch; The Prince of the Pagodas – review

Sadler's Wells; Royal Opera House, London

Viktor, created in 1986 by the German choreographer Pina Bausch, opened at Sadler's Wells last Wednesday. Inspired by Rome, it's the first of 10 pieces by Bausch collectively known as World Cities. Others in the series, to be performed over the next five weeks at Sadler's Wells and the Barbican, include Bamboo Blues (Kolkata), Água (São Paulo) and Wiesenland (Budapest). World Cities was the last project undertaken by Bausch, who died in 2009. And given the global focus of the Olympiad, the season is an appropriate tribute to a great theatrical artist.

No one had a greater influence on postwar European dance than Bausch, whose company has been based in the Westphalian city of Wuppertal since 1973. In the early years, working for Tanztheater Wuppertal involved a considerable leap of faith. Bausch's work often didn't look like dance in the accepted sense. Instead, in works such as Bluebeard and Café Müller, the performers enacted surreal, dream-like scenarios, often involving brutal levels of sexual violence. Bausch's Rite of Spring, which saw a terrified young woman sacrificed on a stage spread with black soil, made a particularly forceful impression. What was it like to perform these pieces, I once asked Dominique Mercy, who has been with the company since the beginning and is now, following Bausch's death, its co-director. "Ça coûtait," he told me. It took its toll.

Bausch was born in 1940, during the second world war. So perhaps it's less than surprising that her chosen territory should be the battlefield of human misunderstanding. Inevitably not everyone has loved her work. When Tanztheater Wuppertal toured the US in 1984, a Washington Post critic wrote of Bausch's "specifically Teutonic attraction to the powers of darkness, to an alliance of art, disease, and malevolence". And some still hold similar views; Bausch's oeuvre is nothing if not controversial. But over the years her creative style has bled into the dance landscape, and today it's hard to find an avant-garde choreographer whose output doesn't reflect her influence.

As she grew older, Bausch's work perceptibly lightened. Viktor is a transitional piece, and while still mordant – the set, a vast earthwork rampart, references Rome's excavated past but also the grave – is less existentially bleak than much of her earlier work. In form, it's a succession of typically Bauschian cameos. A woman, apparently missing both arms, stands smiling obliquely at the audience. A man conducts the wedding ceremony of two corpses, and another wanders the audience offering postcards for sale. A woman marches to the front of the stage, lifts her breasts from the top of her dress and announces: "I want to talk to you. Seriously." And at intervals, waves of dancers in evening wear process across the stage, shimmying and foxtrotting to sentimental German songs of the 1930s.

It's all, of course, very calculated. The women wear loose silk slips, at once slyly revealing and redolent of lost privilege, and smoke a lot. There's a familiar Bauschian sense of desolation, emphasised rather than relieved by vignettes like the one where 12 formally dressed men simultaneously pull out powder compacts and make themselves up. All these tropes – the nonspecific tristesse, the "lost age" nostalgia, the cross-dressing, the exhibitionism – are staples of Bausch's work. But is their repeated use more than the self-plagiarisation of an artist past her best? Do the World Cities pieces add up to more than the sum of their divertingly surreal parts? The answers to these questions, I suspect, will emerge over the next month.

Monica Mason, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, retires at the end of this season. As a dancer she was a muse of the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, and has championed his works over the decade-long course of her directorship. Mason's parting gift to the company is a revival of MacMillan's 1989 evening-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. Set to a score by Benjamin Britten, the work is a fairytale about an ailing king, a good and an evil daughter and a prince transformed into a reptile.

MacMillan was not the first choreographer to be lured by Britten's shimmering score. An uninvolving scenario, however, has dogged every production to date, and the current reworking by Mason and Deborah MacMillan, the choreographer's widow, fails to address the work's fundamental problems. The first of these is the unsuitability of the modernist score for classical story-ballet. At key moments the music is without forward impetus: a still pool when it needs to be a river. Often, composer and choreographer seem to be proceeding on completely independent paths.

And then there is the resistability of the story. Traditional fairytales enable us to examine our lives from a fantastical perspective, but Pagodas, patched together as it is from other stories (Beauty and the Beast, King Lear, Sleeping Beauty), has a made-by-committee feel. When the Prince (Nehemiah Kish) is turned into a salamander we read it as as a gratuitous plot device rather than a symbolic transformation. At no point is there any sense of metaphor or wider resonance.

Most problematic of all, we're given no reason to care about the heroine, Princess Rose (Marianela Nuñez), a virtuous cipher who fails to evolve over the course of three long acts. This doesn't prevent Nuñez from finding subtle colours and accents in the choreography, or Kish from extracting pathos from his newt situation, but it does make for a long evening. Like the recent revival of MacMillan's Isadora, this is an assiduous and devoted production. But sometimes love is not enough.


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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