Rancorous couples who can’t stand the sight of each other are common among the parading figures of Pina Bausch’s dance theatre. But in one of her earliest creations, from 1975, she retold the story of the devoted Orpheus, expressly forbidden from looking at Eurydice as he leads her out of the underworld.
Not performed in Wuppertal for almost 30 years – and more recently seen in Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire – it has returned to Bausch’s home town in a production of piercing sadness that will also visit the Gluck festival in Fürth. In her second dance opera set to Gluck’s music (after Iphigenie auf Tauris, 1974), she distilled a balletic language to match the noble simplicity of the composer’s reform operas: lucidly emotional, never needlessly embellished movement where fouettés are as absent as coloratura.
Using a German libretto, Bausch stripped the opera of its jolly overture and rejected the joyous ending. Orpheus was a musician who could make trees dance but Rolf Borzik’s set design for the first of the four acts is dominated by the long brittle branches of an uprooted tree. On the opposite side of the stage is Eurydice, in her wedding dress, frozen in time and watching her own funeral procession. The corps, with dancers dressed in black suits or chiffon, are first seen in a tangle of serpentine poses, slowly uniting through anguished port de bras, lapping like waves and introducing a motif of shielding their gaze.
Bausch represented each of the three principals – the third is the Amor character – through both a dancer and a singer. This run has cross-cast the part of Orpheus, sung (as is traditional) by a mezzo-soprano on some nights and, when I went, sung by a countertenor, Valer Sabadus, and danced by Naomi Brito who is transgender. The pair are superbly attuned, whether performing side by side or separated when Sabadus embraces the bride before Brito begins an impassioned solo or, most powerfully, when Brito slams to the floor as Sabadus twice cries Eurydice’s name.
When Sabadus places his hands on one of the set’s mirrors, there are shades of Jean Marais’s superstar-poet in Orphée. That film’s appropriation of Apollinaire’s line “the bird sings with its fingers” resounds, too, through dancers’ delicate hand gestures.
Brito is magnetic as an Orpheus driven by pain more than pluck, the anguish heightened by Sabadus who makes even recitative seem ethereal. The melancholia is only fleetingly leavened, most effectively by dancer Emily Castelli’s insouciant Amor, characterising youth (sung by Anna Christin Sayn). A trio of apron-clad dancers representing Cerberus, the triple-headed Hades hound, raise a smile in the second act but they are soon menacing the stage with jagged jumps, as relentlessly cruel as any of Bausch’s tormentors.
The Furies are anxiously fastidious figures, restricting the freedom of the stage by tying up the space with string. The contrast between their dance and that of the Blessed Spirits, both evocatively played by Wuppertal’s symphony orchestra, is diminished by a lengthy scene change between the second and third acts but Bausch’s brilliantly lit Elysian Fields is a peach dream, elegant backbends complementing the soothing flutes. If they lack a drilled precision, the corps brings a wonderful sense of balm though Bausch sours the scene with a ring of voyeurs. Soprano Naroa Intxausti excels as Eurydice, paired with dancer Luiza Braz Batista whose most affecting solo comes when the singing stops.
In Josephine Ann Endicott’s restaging, under the musical direction of Michael Hofstetter and with the haunting chorus of the Wuppertaler Bühnen in the balcony, to live and love is to dance. As both Eurydices are laid to rest, Brito’s supple movement ceases and all of Orpheus’s pain is contained in a motionless body.
• Orpheus and Eurydice is at the Opera House, Wuppertal, until 18 April and at the Gluck festival, Fürth, 1-2 May. This trip was paid for by Tanztheater Wuppertal.