Pina Bausch’s Bluebeard is unmissable theatre

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at Sadler’s Wells, London
February 12, 2020

Maggie Foyer

Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is magnificent and brutal. Pina Bausch embeds her work in its ambience, then proceeds to strip away the veneer that society demands and to expose the raw human being. The work premiered in 1977 soon after her early dance-opera masterpiece, Iphigene auf Taurus of 1974, and Sacre, probably her best-known work, in 1975. It marked the turn from more dance-based works to theatrical studies of human behaviour. This performance of Bluebeard, restaged by Jan Minarik and Beatrice Libonati, was the first in the UK.

Bausch’s characters are as elemental as those presented by the Ancient Greeks on the sun-baked stones of the arenas. The abuse that pervades the piece makes it, at times, almost impossible to watch. Director Bettina Wagner-Bergelt, is right in calling it, “the most courageous piece Pina ever made.”

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bluebeard(pictured Michael Carter, Tien Tsai-wei)Photo Klaus Dilger
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bluebeard
(pictured Michael Carter, Tien Tsai-wei)
Photo Klaus Dilger

Bluebeard has the tropes that are synonymous with Bausch’s pieces. The women’s clinging dresses fall from their shoulders, their long hair is a veil to hide the face and always an adjunct to the movement. The dancers’ feet are bare and the surface they tread on creates another dimension. Here her long-time design partner, Rolf Borzik, covers the floor with dead leaves. They crackle under foot and correspond to the peeling wall of the unlived in apartment.

The full title: Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’, cues in the obsessive repetition of snatches of Bartók’s opera matched by dance moves that repeat over and over to screaming point.

Christopher Tandy as Bluebeard in heavy black coat, sits morosely at his reel-to-reel tape deck. Judith, Silvia Farias Heredia, his new young wife has come to her husband’s castle and to her death. She lies rigid in the leaves, her forearms raised stiffly. He starts the tape and throw himself on her body. He has total power but needs her submission which doesn’t come, as she writhes under him. The process repeats again and again as they snake a path through the leaves.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in BluebeardPhoto Klaus Dilger
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bluebeard
Photo Klaus Dilger

As the other women enter, Heredia presents them like prospective brides, arranging their hair and dress to please the master but none satisfies. The men meander on in a line, heads bowed. There is little recognition between the couples as they pair up. In the powerplay that ensues bodies are dragged and pummelled, and dancers throw themselves against the walls with horrifying brutality that is increased by the seeming senselessness of the repetition. There are nuances as each falling body and each blow amplifies the imbalance of dominance.

The moment of absurd male posturing, flexing muscles in bright coloured underwear with fixed grins, is startling in its incongruity. The piece shows humans at their most unlovely, all pleasantries aborted, and only raw pain left behind. All are complicit and all are victims in a perpetual cycle.

Bluebeard is long and punishing but holds you in a fierce embrace even as you long for release. It makes huge demands on the dancers and each of this astounding cast offered their full allegiance. It’s unmissable theatre.