Life after death

Sanjoy Roy remembers one of the 20th century's great choreographers.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
Barbican Theatre, London EC2

For many dancegoers, 2009 marked the end of the 20th century. The legendary choreographers Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham died within weeks of each other last summer. Between them, they had defined the poles of modern dance - Bausch was interested not in "how people move, but in what moves them"; Cunningham was the opposite. Pretty much everyone else looked to them as reference points. But while Cunningham, at 90, had long decided what would happen to his company and works, Bausch, who died at 68 just five days after being diagnosed with cancer, had made no plans for her legacy.

In the event, Bausch's company regrouped very quickly, determined to preserve and to continue touring her works. In 2010 alone, it is bringing three different programmes to the UK. The first of these, Kontakthof, seems symbolically the most significant, because it looks to both past and future. Originally made in 1978 with Bausch's dancers, this three-hour piece was revived by the company in 2002 for a cast of 22 non-professional performers, all aged 65 and over; and again in 2008, for teenagers between 14 and 18. The piece was presented in both its old and new faces during a celebration of Bausch's work at the Barbican (1-4 April).

It's astonishing how different those faces are. At the very beginning, the performers, dressed in formal gowns and suits, simply present themselves to the audience; they show front, profile and rear, hold out their hands for inspection, check their teeth. With the older cast, this reads as a resigned acceptance of fact: these are liver-spotted hands, lived-in faces, bodies that bulge and sag with history. With the teenagers, the moment bristles with self-consciousness and anxiety: is my hair OK, are my nails clean, do these clothes look silly? Such age-related differences recur in the piece, heightened by its subject, encounters between men and women.

Kontakthof (literally "meeting place") is set in a drab social club, chairs lining the walls as if for a tea dance. Formal outfits lend an appearance of decorum; gramophone recordings of waltzes and tangos impart a rose-tinted patina of romance. The choreography has no truck with such niceties. One section bluntly stages the battle of the sexes. Opposing phalanxes of men and women vie for control of the floor, slinging words at each other - "Hand! Cheek! Back! Foot!" - like stones hurled at targets.

Couples are constantly caught in double-binds, sending out mixed messages. A woman shrieks "Don't touch me!" but continues to flail her arms against her man instead of walking away. Men repeatedly tap and pat their partners until play turns into queasy tickle-torture. Sometimes the performers go it alone: one woman straddles a coin-operated fairground horse, which jiggles for a soulless moment of mechanical, masturbatory stimulation. A queue forms for this joyride.

There is, to be sure, some consensual, equitable partnering, such as when serenely smiling couples come forth to inflict tiny humiliations on each other - he tweaks her arm, she pinches his thigh, he knocks her knee - each round drawing desultory applause from the onlookers. Or the time when a couple look longingly into each other's eyes while two women provide a commentary - "He looks like a frog!"; "Was she that ugly as a child?" - that spikes any budding little bubble of love.

But Kontakthof is also shot through with humour, pathos, even affection. In one wholly unexpected scene, everyone watches a nature programme about ducks; all that plumage and preening seems of a piece with the stage action. When the film ends, the performers go "aaah". You feel something similar when Kontakthof ends, the players circling the stage as if it were a prison yard - or, perhaps, simply their pond.

Both these casts breathe life into Kontakthof. That is just what Bausch needs: more than most, her works require live performance. They are meant to be experienced, not watched; her stage is an environment, not a frame. Kontakthof shows how an old piece can both mature with age and be remade by a new generation. It gives hope for Bausch's future - though none, admittedly, for the future of gender relations.

Sanjoy Roy is the New Statesman's dance critic.