sat 13/07/2024

1980, Tanztheater Wuppertal, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

1980, Tanztheater Wuppertal, Sadler's Wells

1980, Tanztheater Wuppertal, Sadler's Wells

Pina Bausch's company stun and delight with this long-overdue return of a historic piece

Lutz Förster in the original production of '1980'© Ulli Weiss

Review convention is to put this at the end, but I can’t risk you stopping reading before I can say: go and see 1980 while it is at Sadler's Wells this week. It is one of the most extraordinary works you will ever watch.

If ballet is about getting off the ground and Graham/Cunningham-derived contemporary is about getting down to the ground, then German stage poet/choreographer Pina Bausch is about simply being on the surface of the ground. I can think of no other major choreographer whose dancers so consistently wear “normal” shoes, the kind most people in the audience will have worn; there is no specialist equipment for this work of being human. The clothes, too, are “normal” - or rather formal, since men wear suits and women heels and evening dresses, though the protective function of such clothing, the status and authority it might suggest/confer, is constantly subverted: men drop their trousers or strip to their (common-or-garden) underpants, and dresses are dropped off the shoulder or hitched to the bum, or unexpectedly squirted with water.

Though the dancers are capable of running, jumping, writhing or jiving with an intensity, even ferocity, that makes most other performers I’ve ever seen look slack, their main mode is walking. A motif repeated several times sees all the dancers in single file saunter off the stage and into the audience while doing an action sequence with their hands, as if to a children’s song except that it draws attention to breasts and hips, and the dancers smile with bright, adult archness right into your eyes. As stage presences they are, all of them, nuclear; incandescent. Mechthild Grossman in particular, with that voice like a thousand cigarettes in the dark, is dense and magnetic as iron ore, pulling on our gaze with near-planetary gravity.

The dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1980The stage is planted with grass, and lit with Instagram-filter warmth; the music is mostly either gentle-melancholic (with piano, violin, cello or alto voice) or vintage-upbeat (Benny Goodman, Comedian Harmonists). Quite often the hissing of old recordings (and the miking of the live music) is clearly and I assume deliberately audible; like the neat turf, the artificial sunlight, and the half Disney, half Babycham life-sized little deer, this obviously controlled sound signals domestication, and containment. But Bausch does not bring only tame nature indoors (viz. her Rite of Spring), and feral sounds too roam the huge space, mainly emanating from the dancers, who as well as screaming, shouting and laughing sing German folk laments, warble children’s ditties, or hum along to the battered harmonium being played right in the middle of the stage.

That’s not to say it’s all happy and positive; like most of Bausch's oeuvre, 1980 takes in much that is unpleasant, not to say scary, in human existence. There is fear (all the dancers are required by a peremptory man on a loudspeaker to shout out what they are afraid of), loneliness, humiliation, pain and exhaustion. The threatening realities of money, objectification, violence, state power, and the betrayal of trust are brought into the garden, particularly in the second act, where a sinister beauty contest (pictured above right) has the dancers competing to boast about their own displayed legs (“ladies and gentleman, this is not a leg, it’s the beginning of a sculpture!”) while summing up their countries of origin in three words (“samba, papaya, piranha”). The emotionally frail, shrill Australian blonde played by Julie Shanahan is perhaps the saddest character, at one point worshipping McDonald’s cups, at another boasting to us of diamonds and rubies we know she doesn’t have, while pretending to be up a hill we know isn’t there, and then being overcome with a terror of frogs we cannot see.

I could go on and on describing what happens in 1980 (I damn near filled a notebook trying to capture it all), but in a way that’s not the point: the point is how it makes you feel. 

The cast of 1980 by Pina BauschBy dissolving the barriers between audience and performers – at one point they serve tea in the stalls, and the magnificent Mechthild propositions a man in the front row – it provokes a warm kind of self-awareness. A bare-footed dancer on the grass makes you think vividly of your own feet on grass; beautifully assured hand gestures provoke people, perhaps unconsciously, to move their own hands in their laps. The usual relentless forward focus on a proscenium-bounded square of light is transformed into a kind of sagittal openness; you feel the people next to you, see them, appreciate their presence, feel pleasure at their laughter. The inevitable coughs and rustles and breathing of a space full of humans are no longer irritating but part of the sound-world of the performance.

Time passes with an easefulness that belies the marathon three and a half hours the performance lasts. And it’s funny, too; did I mention that? Frequently and gurglingly funny. Grossman again rides off with the honours, swaggering, bandy-legged, downstage in heels, tights, underwear and a leather jacket, slapping her thighs, the walls, and occasionally her co-stars while intoning “fantastic!” with gravelly German emphasis.

1980 was the piece that introduced the genius of Pina Bausch to the UK over 30 years ago, and its return has been cause for reverent rejoicing among British Pina fans. Some in the audience last night had seen that first tour in 1982, and had come back with adult offspring in tow. They could tell you how it compares to the original epiphanic experience. I can’t; I’m more of an age with the adult offspring, so this was my first encounter with 1980. I only hope I don’t have to wait 30 years for another one.

Overleaf: watch a clip from the original run of 1980 at Sadler's Wells





Mechthild Grossman, with that voice like a thousand cigarettes in the dark, is dense and magnetic as iron ore, pulling on our gaze with near-planetary gravity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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As a long time fan of Pina this was like coming home. The wonderful mixture of crazy humour, sadness, childhood nostalgia and the realization that life will never be the same again. 1980 is especially hard for those who are expecting to see the Tanz in the Tanztheater as there isn't much, grass not being the ideal medium. The person I took to this was bitterly disappointed on this front so she left at the interval. Pina Bausch managed to create a whole visual and aural language that people either get or they don't but they probably don't realize how her influence has trickled down the years into other mediums as well as dance even as far as advertising I suspect. The interesting question is how long can the company keep going without creating new work. It now has a new artistic director Lutz Forster so we will have to see whether they will remain a mainstay of the Sadlers Wells season. I, for one, hope so.

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