Since She – Sadler’s Wells, London

Choreographer: Dimitris Papaioannou 

Reviewer: Gus Mitchell

Since the death of its visionary and founder Pina Bausch nearly ten years ago, her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, have performed no new works. This is quite a distinct break for a company which up until then were performing a new work every year, each conceived and choreographed by Bausch. It was clear that a moment of creative stepping-back and reflection would be required for the company following Bausch’s death and they were touring only repertoire Bausch pieces during these years.

Sadler’s Wells on Valentine’s Day saw the performance of the first of their two new works since her death, both created by guest choreographers. Since She, by guest choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, contains the jagged recurring images of a dream. It unfolds at different, sometimes clashing speeds, moving from high energy to slow, careful dread.

Papaioannou, trained as a visual artist and the writer over 40 comic books, has made a production which is full of bold, strange, striking tableaus inhabiting the stage simultaneously, as they do on the page of a comic. Since She takes place in a dreamlike, an animalistic, ritualistic world. Not only is this apparently a hallmark of Papaoiannou’s work, but indeed the piece strikes one afterword as inevitable product of a surreal and daring visual imagination.

To attempt to draw any underlying concrete narrative or consistent metaphor in the piece seems beside the point. One can only sit back, as I did, and surrender to the power of the continuing, shifting parade of images.

A slow opener, going almost unnoticed by the audience, gives us a performer emerging from the wings, perched on a chair and grasping another, which he proceeds to place ahead of him as the first of an eventual “bridge” across the stage. Putting down one chair means that more are handed to him by the others who emerge behind him, who must make their own individual way across the stage on their chair-bridge, built in real time, not only nervously helping each other along as they go but removing the chairs behind them and thus robbing themselves of a way back.

If you choose to look at it in such a way, this opening image, hilarious and mesmerising, is a perfect representation of a group after a leader has departed, nervously relying on each other as they try to make their way forward, uncertain but determined to stretch their ingenuity.

The company’s skill and Papaoiannou’s imagination splendidly combine again and again. There are recurrent images, most prevalent among them the crablike backwards-crawl which the performers – male and female, clothed and unclothed – make down the improbably massive-seeming mountain of black foam-mats which make up the background of Tina Tzoka’s spectral set. More than once an eerie tree is dragged to the top of this “black hill” only to disappear; strange, iconic figures are framed by the trees in light, only to have disappeared when you look away at another flurry of activity, going on somewhere else.

The lighting, by Fernando Jacon and Stephanos Droussiotis, is splendidly effective, bouncing off the contradictions of an industrial set and instead onto the bared flesh of more or less exposed human bodies. To try and take in the details of one group of bodies will inevitably mean that you miss at least some of the details of another so that when you look back, both at the time and afterwards, dream-like gaps have appeared in your understanding of events.

There is plenty of humour here, some foul and some cute. There is at the same time plenty that is disturbing, that remains boldly in your mind as the tone or register shifts again. The performers don long cylinders of cardboard in place of limbs, strange Praying Mantis-like man-creatures, attempting desperately to find some way of navigating space again; or they play baffling erotic games, clothing and re-clothing, piercing and pinning costumes bizarrely. If there is one unignorably prevalent theme in the piece it is Papaoiannou’s interest in male-female dynamics and desires, ranging from the slowed-down, embarrassingly ordinary and to the bizarre and extreme.

TWPB have created a new work to which, having never seen a Bausch piece, I have nothing to compare. Papaioannou’s disturbingly blissful dream, though, made a stirring, beautiful, hypnotic sense.

Runs until 17 February 2019 | Image: Contributed

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