Last Updated on February 4, 2022
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch returns to Sadler’s Wells with a revival of Kontakthof
One of the challenges of productions at Sadler’s Wells is that the runs are very short indeed. Kontakthof from Tanztheater Wuppertal has just four performances left in London and you’ll need to be quick if you want to catch one of them. We went along last night for the first performance and, as we’d anticipated it was a poignant and provocative production. Pina Bausch speaks to a wide range of people. In our seats, the gentleman next to me, with a background in theatre, told me that he didn’t normally like dance but that the works of Pina Bausch always moved him deeply.
I’ve struggled since I left the theatre to work out what happens that is so emotionally charged and, learning more about the work, believe that perhaps it is, as Julie Shanahan, principal rehearsal director says. The basic choreographic structures of Kontakthof are simple – the dancers move in diagonals and circles, mimicking the actions of the person at the head. Then, there are inspection moments, inspired by Bausch’s own experience as a dancer at an audition in New York. But, as Shanahan points out, the greatest impact comes when performers break away – whether that’s to blow up a rubber doll, to dance an ethereal duet or to attempt a seduction with someone across the empty dance hall, to undress, shiver in your nakedness, only to be interrupted when the main body of dancers return.
Throughout her work, some themes recur – human frailty and brutality, the power and the pity of personal relationships (particularly between men and women), the blind force of desire and the desperate veneer of normality (she often dresses her performers in formal gowns and suits, representing a shiny layer of convention). From Bluebeard (1977) onwards, Bausch abandoned development and progression: all her subsequent pieces are loose, unpredictable montages of scenes, strung together by free association. As she began to work more with ideas drawn from her performers’ personal lives, soul-baring confession came to dominate the choreography. She developed a methodology where she’d ask each of the dancers to express an idea in response to her questioning, either in words or dance which formed the base of the final work.
Created and performed at the Tanztheater Wuppertal in their 1978/9 season and premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 1982, Bausch’s Kontakthof evokes longing and misguided desires. Sets and costumes are by Rolf Borzik, her lover who died a year later at the age of just 35. The piece is brought to life by a group of mature dancers, playing out first encounters, courtship and uncertain romance. “Kontakthof,” means “courtyard of contact”. Men and women meet in a cheerless dance hall for nearly three hours of romantic encounters. It’s regarded as one of the most important pieces in Pina Bausch’s repertoire and was created when she was already established with a growing reputation in the world of dance.
During her life, the work was performed in different forms. Kontakthof – Mit Damen und Herren ab 65 (with dancers over 65) was first performed in the year 2000, while Kontakthof – Mit Teenagern ab 14 (with teenagers over 14) was performed the year before her death, in 2008. The music, a collection of popular songs and pieces from the early to mid 20th century, quirky love songs, tangos and ragtime, makes for a playlist of music popular in the 1930s, poignant and moving today. Like Bausch herself, I’d have liked to see the work performed by the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal when they were over 60. This production included a range of ages and of body shapes and sizes. Perhaps it’s my own age that made me long for more mature dancers on stage here?