Two men eat lit candles. A live chicken in paraded around the stage and is left to feed off a smashed watermelon. A vase of flowers is emptied into the skirt of one performer’s gown. A woman. In a bath. A walrus. Seemingly disparate and absurd, these images are few of the episodes that are woven together to create Pina Bausch’s Masurca Fogo, a physical collage that ingeniously explores the reality of human experience through a surreal artistic medium.

Created in 1997, Masurca Fogo is a meditation upon Tanztheater Wuppertal’s visit to Lisbon, and is part of the company’s “world cities” series, in which they draw inspiration from different cities and cultures from around the globe. In contrast to many other harrowingly emotive works in Bausch’s oeuvre, this piece emanates tranquil joy and at times erotic vibrancy. It’s reminiscent of a sensual summer holiday as a group of tranquil women in bright swimming costumes lie sunbathing carelessly on the large rock-like structure that fills the back of the stage.

Whilst some moments seem purely anecdotal (including a charming scene in which the cast builds an intimate hut which they cram into for a vibrant and energetic festa) others remain in the realm of imagery. The meaning of the images which Bausch presents to us is never explicit, but therein lies their beauty, as she allows the audience to apply their own significance to the absurd metaphors they are presented with. These symbolic visual depictions are interspersed with solo performances that showcase not only the cast’s movement qualities but also their personalities. Through Bausch’s work we feel we get to know the dancers onstage as they demonstrate their idiosyncratic movement characteristics. It is therefore particularly satisfying for dedicated Bausch enthusiasts to observe performances by familiar stalwarts of Tanztheater Wuppertal including Julie Shanahan and Nazareth Panadero. The former’s powerfully comic entrance wearing nothing but a dress constructed of red balloons demonstrates Bausch’s ability to immediately change the mood, as a group of male performers pop the balloons with their cigarette butts, leaving Shanahan vulnerable and exposed, desperately trying to maintain her modesty. Panadero’s droll and blunt performance style also incites a dry humour, her intention so refined that she can have the audience in hysterics by merely stomping across the stage.

Lighter spirited than works such as Café Muller and The Rite of Spring, Masurca Fogo caters for Bausch aficionados and first time Tanztheater viewers alike. Whilst those familiar with the processional lines and bizarre imagery can revel in the classic style of a legendary choreographer, those encountering Pina for the first time are welcomed in with a warm smile and cheeky, playful wit. From the innocent gliding along a makeshift water-slide – which I dare say many of the audience wanted to try for themselves – to sexual innuendos and one dancer’s explanation of the “three stages of orgasm”, in Masurca Fogo Bausch takes in the entire spectrum of the nature of euphoria, in a reflection of what Julie Shanahan proclaims was a “very happy…crazy” time in Lisbon.

Masurca Fogo played until February 12 at Sadler’s Wells

Photo: Zerrin Aydin-Herwegh