Pina Bausch: Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s Opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Choreographer: Pina Bausch

Or Bluebeard, for short. Never seen in Britain before, Bluebeard revolutionised modern dance, and even though this piece hails from 1977, it still challenges its audiences and, above all, it tests the bodies of its dancers. At two hours straight through, it’s a long haul but it does offer some rewards.

Bausch adopts the narrative of Bartók’s opera in which Judith marries Duke Bluebeard. His castle is dark, but every door she opens to let in light reveals blood-stained rooms. Bluebeard begs her not to open them, but behind one door are his other wives. She will eventually disappear with them through the seventh door.

Bausch’s version is more abstract but there are glimpses of the story still. At one point we see Bluebeard pull dress after dress over the body of Judith in the same way Bluebeard makes Judith wear all his wives’ jewellery in the original opera. But rather than story, Bausch is interested in relaying feeling, and in this she succeeds generating awe, terror and, occasionally, boredom.

Bluebeard (Christopher Tandy), dressed stiffly in an overcoat, looking like a character from Poldark, and Judith (Silvia Farias Heredia), wearing a salmon-pink gown, dance the battle of the sexes. He pulls and positions her. Often she doesn’t resist, her limbs as immobile as a doll’s. Bartók’s music plays on a portable tape deck that Bluebeard wheels around the stage, pressing pause and then rewinding. As the opera restarts, the two dancers repeat their movements.

Repetition features in most of Bausch’s work, and the two dancers, who are soon joined by the ensemble, go over the same steps and sequences again and again. Sometimes these repetitions are exciting like the section, early on, when the dancers hurl themselves at walls in glorious (and precisely choreographed) chaos. At other times the repetitions are thankless, but they seek to demonstrate how these men and women are trapped in a cycle of abuse and desire.

Also grating, and purposely so, is the simpering laughter of the female dancers as they dash around stage following Bluebeard. The only humour comes when the male dancers come to the front of the stage to pose and gurn as if they are bodybuilders, their lithe bodies stretched so grotesquely that their swagger soon stops being funny.

The costumes and set, designed originally by Rolf Borzik and now updated by Knut Klaßen and Marion Cito, suggest that this battle between men and women is reserved for the upper classes.  There are elegant dresses, and smart shirts, fancy dressing gowns, and, for the men, velvet underwear. Although these costumes bring colour to the stage, a large white room strewn with leaves and with windows brimming with light, they also distract from the drama happening on stage.

But eventually nothing distracts from the final section where Bausch’s repetitions are performed under the guidance of Bluebeard. He claps, the dancers dance; he claps, the dancers stop, some of them rushing to find their mark before they fall still. This circle of love and hate could go on forever, but the voice of Bluebeard on the tape will stop eventually.

This revival comes as Bartók’s opera is now out of copyright: his estate had withdrawn the rights. It’s been a long wait  for Britain to see this dance, and yet while it never seems outdated it does seem out of place. Bluebeard is very much of its time, but as a game changer it’s essential viewing.

Runs until 15 February 2020

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