Choreographed by the late great monolith of contemporary dance, Pina Bausch, Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört (On the Mountain a Cry Was Heard) is an unusual spectacle. At times enthralling, at others surprising and perhaps even a bit disengaging.
For the most part, it consists of small scenes that see single characters or duos on stage repeating strings of material three or four times. The Sadler’s Wells stage – here covered in a thick layer of earth – dwarfs them. It isolates them. The choreography itself is a painter’s palette of emotion: moments of shock, sentimentality and humour, all together in a muddy mass.
It opens with a thrilling segment. Petrified dancers skirt around the edge of the stage as if they are hunted. After a moment Michael Streker enters wearing silver slip-ons, encroaching y-fronts, large spectacles and a swimming hat – all bright red. Holding position, he slowly reaches into his pants, takes out a balloon and begins to blow into it in long steady breaths. The balloon inflates slowly. We’re on a knife edge, and Streker doesn’t stop until it explodes. We jump out of our seats – it really does make an almighty bang – but Streker doesn’t react. After pausing for a moment, he calmly reaches back into his briefs, pulls out another flaccid piece of rubber and begins the process again.
Gebirge is full of similar routines – short, minimal movements that are repeated without development. What changes however is how we react. It’s a common trope in Bausch’s work, and it works well here: you will of course react differently when you know the balloon will be blown to bursting point. There is a tension still, but a different type of tension. When each and every episode of the tens of episodes is repeated three to four times however, I felt it was pushing things too far. The device fails to elevate the meaning or impact of most episodes.
Besides this however, there is a great deal going on. A diverse range of themes are picked up on and dissected imaginatively. Women often find themselves at the hands of an abusive man, sometimes this is through careless disregard, but often it is open sadism. It seems clear that no idea was disregarded at any point for being too shocking in the devising process. So much so that scenes can be difficult to watch, especially when you know from the repetitive element that the same action is coming round again.
Gebirge takes its time and, on an individual basis, scenes rarely struggle to have an effect, whether that is the unsettling image of eight men hunting and physically forcing a couple to kiss, or a soft trotting scene, arms interlinked, between the company’s artistic director Lutz Forster and long-time Bausch contributor Dominique Mercy, which is wholly touching. But no care is taken to make this an easily endured experience.
The real highlight of the show for me however is halfway through the first act, when the stage is filled with smoke. The smog collects into a giant cloud that hangs above the stage, and is swept into shape by the movement of the dancers below it. It is this image more than any other that will stick with me.
I feel certain that the dancers finished fully satisfied with their product. I feel certain also, reading up about Bausch and her philosophies, that their satisfaction will not be swayed by this or any other criticism. Bausch’s work understandably took a degree of time to build up international recognition, and in my first personal experience of it I can understand why. What it is trying to achieve, for example its minimalist and repetitive purity, I can appreciate – but I just couldn’t enjoy it. This is hard-line expressionist dance, and perhaps not for the casual fan.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Auf dem Gebirge plays at Sadler’s Wells until 18 April. See the Sadler’s Wells website for tickets and more information.