Review: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Bluebeard, Sadler’s Wells ‘A Phenomenon’

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Well, this is extraordinary, so much so that I find it hard to know where to begin… Should I start with marvelling at the exhausting physical commitment from the dancers? Do I wonder at how a piece that is about 30 years old is so nuanced and brilliant that it puts most contemporary productions examining #MeToo to shame? Or do I instead focus on the exhilarating choreography and performance elements that feel as fresh and innovative today as they must have done 30 years ago?

In truth, It’s everything all at once. Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Bela Bartok’s Opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” (to give this production its full title) is overwhelming. It is a dark, nasty story, centred around the gory legend of a woman being seduced by a man – only to find that behind every door of his castle lies the murder of a previous lover. And given that the conclusion usually sees the latest lover give herself over to be killed too, it’s a mighty tricky one in today’s climate.

And that was my big fear, heading down to Sadler’s Wells to see this; how would one of Pina’s early productions (never performed in the UK before) about abuse, misogyny and domestic violence fare in the present day? As it was, I needn’t have worried for not only did it fare pretty damn well, it had more insight than, pretty much, any production made today.

We start with the said Bluebeard in the arms of his lover. Dead leaves smother the stage, a haunting foreshadowing of what has happened before and what will come to pass. We watch as these two lovers court and circle one another, all the while the manipulation of Bluebeard becoming increasingly apparent as he stops/starts the music to control the tone of the burgeoning relationship (the silences in this production is one of its most fascinating markers).

It is the unravelling of that control that is captured so extraordinarily well here. Pina brings on the ghosts of his former, now dead, lovers with such foreboding that I couldn’t help but be transported to Giselle’s wilis. It is this sisterhood of wronged women that breaks Bluebeard – their pounding of limbs and bodies against the castle walls and their laughing – oh that laughing! As Margaret Atwood famously rued, ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’

In fact, that single quote sums up this entire production. But that quote is from the 1990s; Pina choreographed this extraordinary piece in 1977. How ahead of her time she was…

The emotional power of the performances and the guile of the ensemble is what leaves its mark though. A two-hour show of trauma wouldn’t work and there’s some nicely placed moments of levity, and each and every time I expected the show to lose steam, it turned again and the choreography revealed yet more of the interior of its characters. But I don’t think I will soon forget the sound of a dozen women laughing at their men – then, in an instant, suddenly silenced.

An absolute privilege to witness.

Sadler’s Wells, London, from 12 to 15 February 2020

Production images by Maarten Vanden Abeele

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