The inventiveness of Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof still shines brightly

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at Sadler’s Wells
February 3, 2022

Pina Bausch, founder of world-renowned company Wuppertal Tanztheater, changed the course of twentieth-century dance history. Her force and originality are often attributed to her meticulous staging, painstaking choice of dancers, and distinctive blend of dance and theatre. It is a testament to Bausch that these techniques have become ubiquitous. Dance theatre is now a genre.

The latest incarnation of Kontakthof at Sadler’s Wells does not necessarily pack the ground-breaking punch of its London premier forty years ago. It remains an unparalleled piece exploring relationships between the sexes, however; full of ideas and observations that have not lost their brilliance.

Bausch translated the word ‘kontakthof’ as “a place where people meet who are searching for contact.” Rolf Borzik’s set design realises this as a large 1930s dance hall lined with chairs. The dancers are dressed in lustrous period costumes: satin evening dresses and elegant suits.

Tanztheater Wuppertal in Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof
Photo Reiner Pfisterer

Accompanied by a montage of German ballads, sequences open with movements that embody the formality of those times. Elizabeth Barrowman leads; she smooths her hair, adjusts her clothing, is escorted by a partner. The rest of the twenty-two strong troupe then join in, performing the same movements in diagonals and circles.

Then, invariably, something cracks. The women discover they no longer know how to move in heels. Toe first? Clothes are hitched up rather than adjusted. Dignified exteriors and classical lines slump. Strange shapes explode as humans morph into creatures. Masked couples trot arm in arm or poke, bite and paw one another. Snippets of dialogue resound; “I’m not angry, I just want to be alone!” Andrey Berezin, an ambiguous presence throughout, becomes a ringmaster compering this animal circus.

When order reasserts itself, conventions are confused. Barefoot dancers still sashay as if in heels. They beg the audience for coins to ride the fairground horse that has appeared downstage. We watch them watching a documentary about mallards. Yet the intensity of the emotions and relationships explored – how desire can breed power struggles fraught with self-consciousness, jealousy, tenderness, abuse – unifies these absurd scenes as they process before us like a carousel.

Rehearsal director Julie Shenahan recalls the first time she saw Wuppertal’s work: “Pina took people who you would never imagine could dance. They just looked like amazing people”. Kontakthof’s tirelessness (it runs at three hours) stems from how its relatively simple choreography exploits and embraces the inventiveness of and differences between its dancers.

Previously, the main role in Kontakthof has been handed down and dancers introduced to the piece in small numbers. In this revival almost the entire cast are new. The directors stress the importance of allowing the dancers time to find their own way into the work. It is evident in the way situations recur but never become repetitive. The same gestures in the hands of cast members of different ages and nationalities are, by turns, comical, moving, messy or distressing. This process is consistently fascinating to watch. The new cast have succeeded in putting their stamp on Wuppertal’s signature piece.