The programme to the late Pina Bausch‘s dance-opera Iphigenie auf Tauris says of her pieces that they “consistently relate to things every member of the audience knows or has experienced physically”. Well, I’m not so sure how many of us have experienced Iphigenia’s particular domestic problems since she comes from the sort of dysfunctional and frankly murderous family that would make even our own Jerry Springer blanch.
Offered up for sacrifice by her father Agamemnon, she is rescued by the gods and whisked to a safe house in Crimea under the dubious stewardship of a dodgy Ukrainian. Meanwhile, back at Agamemnon Central, her mother (Clytemnestra) slaughters her father, only to be bumped off, in turn, by her brother Orestes. And now, to cap it all, the dodgy Ukrainian is strongly insistent that Iphigenia kill her own matricidal brother.
Hardly the stuff of everyday life, but I think I know what the commentator means. Bausch has a knack for keeping things brutally simple, and she uses choreography like a scalpel to flay off any excess. Her dancers have a pliancy, but it’s the pliancy of steel, as they carve out the emotional heart of the matter: expressions of friendship, of love, and sorrow. This we relate to.
And yet, in some ways, this production is an immodest embarrassment of riches. The Greek myth, as interpreted by Euripedes, is the inspirational lode for Christoph Gluck’s heady 1781 opera, which is staged here at Sadler’s Wells complete with full orchestra in the pit and a full complement of soloists and choir, who are positioned out of sight in the boxes. The dancing on stage is but the final layer on this most moreish of cakes.
The dancers themselves are preternaturally silent, and there is a clear dissociation between voice and movement. This is a curious state of affairs: many in the audience were craning to see the singers, and struggling with the synopsis to work out who was who. But when the singers’ molten notes pour from on high it’s like the gods themselves have given the characters voice, which is a neat touch when we’re dealing with the top-down control of the Greek pantheon. (And even those with limited German could get the emotional voltage spike when the siblings recognise each other: “Mein bruder!” “Meine schwester!“) At the same time Bausch has a knack of suggesting a very human nervous energy behind the dancers’ repetitive rituals; they appear to be locked into behaviour patterns by their anxieties and desires. Iphigenia and her tribe, as in all good Euripidean drama, have an inner life.
Initially the cool neutrals and minimalism of Bausch’s pared-down aesthetic seem just a little too much like a 1990s Calvin Klein campaign: the Greek boys — Orestes and his lover Pylades — are stripped to their teeny white boxer shorts, while Iphigenia and her priestesses are all kitted out in tasteful slips. Gradually, however, the monochrome design reveals subtle intimations of colour and variation to suggest culture and statehood: a little Hellenic cut here, a swirl of Russian capes there.
As for the boys in briefs, the exposure of their bodies in this way makes them acutely vulnerable, for all their powerful musculature, and there’s a feel of tenderness and softness in the scenes between the two men. From the moment the pair first appear, it is clear their fates are as entwined as their limbs: at one point their bodies are slung on a slab, and it is not clear where one starts and the other finishes; at times their co-ordinated attitudes and steps are like images from a Parthenon frieze, as they dance their way to immortality.
The stark beauty of Bausch’s subdued palette is at its most powerful in the final act, when a huge white screen is lit up as the background for the impending sacrifice. This is also the moment when the music, the singing and the dancing stop, as a votary walks with excruciating slowness across the stage and places her white flowers on the altar.
In this story Orestes’ death is averted, but the inspirational Pina Bausch herself died last year, and there is an elegiac quality to this show, as performed by her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. The dance plays out like extended Greco-Roman funeral games, somehow. And it is indeed testament to her work that this piece, originally devised in 1974, if a little decorous, still feels fresh and modern.