Reflecting the complexity and madness of today’s world: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Schlafende Frau

July 9, 2021

A Pandora’s box is emptied out in Schlafende Frau (Sleeping Woman) by Rainer Behr, long time member of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, now for the first time in the role of choreographer with the company’s dancers.

A surrealistic and filmic patchwork of stories and conditions emerges in his new creation as a consequence of the pandemic and its aftermath. The piece touches the strenuous efforts made to resist the inevitable mental strain and exhausting distress that stay-at-home policies have caused.

Behr’s work powerfully depicts something that felt like an apocalyptic event that led to a general madness to take over, which derailed most of people’s common sense. But the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg. There is much more under water, well depicted in the piece, that then started to come out and is still happening.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s
Schlafende Frau (Sleeping Woman)
by Rainer Behr
Photo Evangelos Rodoulis

The sleeping woman at the beginning of the show (Julie Anne Stanzak) seems to be the vector -as dreamer- through which the parallel, absurd, surreal world unfolds later on. The dream is part of the subconscious and therefore the submerged part of that iceberg. At the same time she can be seen as symbolising the absence of action, the hopelessness and therefore the loss of motivation which the pandemic has sparked, and that may be leading into an irreversible lethargic state.

One of the most memorable settings is a quadratic hole that opens up and sinks in the abyss of the stage surrounded by fog. The unknown, the in-comprehensible, the darkness, the vastitude, the sublime, opens up as Jonathan Fredrickson looks at it. As art historian I cannot help but think of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich.

For quite some time, we all have felt an imposing level of resilience and resistance that shook the ground on which we stand. Months of isolation, constant fear, disarming news, claustrophobic restrictions and false promises have conditioned the psyche and behaviour of most.

All this and much more emerge in Behr’s colossal piece. The performance is writ through with sarcastic-caustic humour and unsettling peaks of dystopian realities. It is strongly influenced by a combination of science-fiction-thriller-action movie sets, with a varied yet compelling and appropriate soundtrack for every single scene. The imprint of Pina Bausch can be seen in the delicate attention to detail and the motivation to bring forth on stage the personality of the dancers, each with their own fascinating aura and compelling personality.

“Mad is the new happy, mad land is where we are supposed to be,” Jonathan Fredrickson says in one of the striking scenes of Schlafende Frau.

Rage, unease, derangement, discomfort, restlessness, disappointment, bewilderment. All explode differently in each performer. Shouts, jerks, tugs, pulls, runs, announcements and a constant and quick change of setting, create a persistant urgency and suspense from the beginning to the end. Schlafende Frau is a ceaseless coup de theatre. It embodies the surreal scenarios and peculiar outcomes that arose the pandemic. It is, in fact, a manifesto of the absurd condition 2020-21, of the deranged behaviour boosted from the ‘home-safe-cage’ policy, and of the limitations and impositions forced upon the individual freedom.

Schlafende Frau (Sleeping Woman) by Rainer Behr
Photo Evangelos Rodoulis

Obsessive behaviours repeat themselves in a sort of loop without end. Chairs are moved in different places, sometimes to seat, other times to be piled up, thrown on the floor, or to symbolise trees cut down for the sake of an imbalanced, unsustainable transient comfort.

Some dancers crawl on the stage as if possessed by an incontrollable force and unbalanced by their imposed condition. Others fling themselves in and out of the floor as taken by an indomitable perturbation. They make me think of the scenes in the corners of Dante’s Inferno, and the condemnation to which they – the sinners- have been destined for ever.

An inquietude intoxicates the whole piece, a physical and mental restlessness that brilliantly sums up the insanity of life threatened by the dreadful, ever changing, incessant pandemic.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
in Schlafende Frau (Sleeping Woman) by Rainer Behr
Photo Evangelos Rodoulis

There is a remarkable and perturbing digital yet in-person verbal and eye-to-eye exchange between Emma Barrowman and Fredickson; a filmic-theatrically impressive conversation. A duet between Stephanie Troyak and Milan Nowoitnick Kampfer is disquieting. The distorted perfect couple from ‘happy land’ ending up in ‘mad land’ with scenes of violence, desperation and a total lack of dignity.

What is this world in which we have been stranded? In which direction are we, as human beings, going? Questions I keep asking myself while watching this film version of Behr’s piece.

The filming and editing makes great use of zooms in and out, close ups and fish eye shots. They combine to make Schlafende Frau perceived even more dramatically, and allows the solos to be realised in all their full potential.

All the performers are stunningly eloquent in their narrations, in the stories they bring to the stage and the world. I was particularly captivated by the splendid solos by Anne Stanzak, all majestic beauty and elegance; the potent and magnetic solo by Jonathan Fredrickson; the sassy and waggish performances by Julie Shanahan; the tragi-comic and thoughtful solos of Nazareth Panadero; the alienated solo by Stephanie Troyac in her robotic-techno embodiment; and the wavy and seemingly effortless solos by Emma Barrowman.

Personal dilemmas become universal ones emerging through the explicative and superlative body language of every single dancer; each of them profoundly strong in their own commitment and in their own lines, expressions, energy, charisma, body and stage presence.

In Schlafende Frau, Rainer Behr has created a piece that gives a sense of the complexity and madness of the real world we live in. It is a thought-provoking dance-theatre creation that shakes the ground; a work of rich of fiery contents to reflect upon. A Pandora’s box revealed.

Schlafende Frau will be premiered live at the Opernhaus Wuppertal on January 20, 2022 with further performances on January 21-23. Tickets will be on sale from November 25, 2021. For more information, visit (English, German).