Sunday 17 February 2013

Two Cigarettes in the Dark – Tanztheater Wuppertal at Sadler’s Wells

[another occasion where writing is completely unequal and unsuited to the task at hand]

This is the first time I’ve seen a Pina Bausch show in the flesh. It comes four years after her death and 28 years after she made this show. That Thursday night was the British première of Two Cigarettes in the Dark, which was made in West Germany in 1985 only makes me feel slightly better about the whole thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel like I’ve seen tonnes of Pina Bausch. I’ve watched Café Müller and Frühlingsopfer over and over on YouTube. I’ve seen the Wim Wenders film. I’ve seen Alain Platel’s Out of Context – For Pina. Hell, I’ve seen enough work by Katie Mitchell and every choreographer Bausch has ever influenced (which often feels like every choreographer) to feel like I hardly stop seeing her work, and yet this is the first time I’ve really seen some of it. And what’s most surprising is how *unlike* “Pina Bausch” a lot of Two Cigarettes in the Dark feels.

For a start, it’s actually a lot funnier than anyone ever talks about. I don’t know the canon of her work well enough to say whether this is a total one-off, in a minority, or whether her work and her reputation has been massively misrepresented by a posterity keen to concentrate on the beauty and tortured-soul stuff, but whatever is it, Two Cigarettes in the Dark is surprisingly wry and absurd to the extent that at times it resembles nothing so much as a choreographic tribute to Monty Python. It also recalls the sort of straight-faced silliness of Marthaler – especially his Meine Faire Dame, which I hadn’t expected.

So, what’s Two Cigarettes in the Dark got? What does it do? Well, it’s set in a very large white room with large windows set into each wall. The window at the back gives onto a bunch of large tropical plants in an adjoining black room. The rooms on either side are white, and led up-to with staircases. There is a row of fishtanks placed against th window on the audience’s left.

There are eleven performers. I think slightly more women than men. Unfussily multi-national, as dance companies tend to be. And mostly middle-aged. Not having seen the piece before, I don’t know if this is because it’s the original company performing the piece 28 years on (cf. Ostermeier’s Crave or that never-ending production of Arturo Ui at the Berliner Ensemble which has outlived its director Heiner Müller by 18 years). I rather suspect that here it was always middle-aged dancers. Bausch, after all, is famous for having worked with a far richer, more varied palette of performers than your bog-standard choreographer. And here, there’s not so very much of yer actual *dancing*.

The piece does start with a frenzied explosion of repeated, compulsive arm flailing as one woman stands downstage rehearsing some sort of outward expression of inner torment. She is dressed in a low-cut beige ballgown. This seems like the sort of trademark Bausch thing that we’re expecting. Then (or was it before this) a portly woman dressed in a kitsch bathrobe wanders to the front of the stage and confides in a loud theatrical whisper that her husband is out. She then waddles the entire length of the stage back to the door at the rear and exits. Which is less expected.

From here the stage is peopled by various ball-gowned or dinner jacketed visions of elegance, or aged elegance, or, in one repeated case, punctured dignity undermined by childish glee and/or senile dementia and eventually with diver’s flippers. There seems to be some repetition of patterns of domestic violence, but this is offset with sweet or amused tableaux – at one point a woman curled on the floor offers her partner a leg to hold in order that her entire body might be lifted up and used to break peanut shells. There is occasional talk of- or movement to suggest- angels.

The use of music is no less intelligent than you’d expect. High-classical choral music – like the Bach used in Café Müller – recurs here, but perhaps with its sheer weightiness used against itself; its sheer over-wroughtness being deftly punctured by the pathos of the scenes it scores. Perhaps a joke by the artist against herself. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is how much, despite a total lack of any discernible narrative, it is possible to just keep watching, amused, entertained, sometimes moved and occasionally baffled for two and a half hours (plus interval).

The evening – well, I was going to say “builds”, but it doesn’t really build, it just arrives – to a frenetic conclusion and then plauteaus out with a solitary performer slumped against a wall spray-painting himself white, with a pair of giant angel wings strapped to his back.

I’d love to be able to suddenly pull and explanation out of the bag, and perhaps 28 years ago, all these symbols *read* a bit more intensely than they do now. One notices, for example, that the piece precedes Wenders’s own effort on angels Der Himmel über Berlin (or Wings of Desire as we have it) by only two years. Perhaps there was something in the West German water back then. But I’m afraid that’s not how I watched it. I was delighted and engrossed, but felt more-or-less entirely let of from having to really pin it down. Watching felt experiential rather than philosophical. I was more intrigued by the “how?” of the dramaturgy than the whys and wherefores. In other circumstances this might be accounted a failure. Here it felt precisely right.

Looking for images for the top of the article, I came across some older ones which, perhaps only because they're in grainy black and white, but I don't think it's just that, suggest the thing used to look a lot edgier...

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