This performance of Iphigenie auf Tauris is the first time Pina Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, has appeared at Sadler’s Wells since her death in 2009 and in the world of modern dance it is the hottest ticket in town.

Ulli Weiss
Ulli Weiss

Based on Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera of the Greek myth Iphigenie auf Tauris was one of the first works she created for her company in the early seventies. It is a dance-opera where the two disciplines are mixed to create maximum aural and visual impact with the leading characters represented by a dancer on stage and a singer performing the libretto off-stage. In this case the soloists and chorus were positioned to the side of the proscenium arch at Sadler’s Wells, creating a semi-circle of drama in which the audience was immersed.

Under the musical direction of Jan Michael Hortmann, the orchestra successfully captured the emotional intensity of the music without overwhelming the beauty and clarity of the soloists or dancers. Danielle Halbwachs as Iphigenie was outstanding; indeed all the singers delivered the German libretto with drama and feeling, complemented by London Voices representing the Greek chorus.

On stage Ruth Amarante danced the role of Iphigenia with a blend of delicacy and strength as her slight frame displayed both vulnerability and inner power as she repeatedly threw herself upwards to the gods when pleading for their mercy, while her fellow priestesses moved gracefully into a series of images like the friezes on a Greek urn, echoing the style and unity of a traditional corps de ballet. The affection and deep friendship of Orest and Pylades, danced by Pablo Aran Gimeno and Damiano Ottavio Bigi, is symbolised by their first appearance together on stage where they are physically entwined, showing their need for each other. While the mutual dependency of the siblings is clear when Iphigenie and Orest literally cling to each other for comfort when they discover the true identity of the other.

The choreography of this production is now 36 years old and it is testament to the influence of Bausch’s work that some of the moves seem almost familiar. Yet there are many striking moments. Orest ascending a sloping ladder towards the altar of his sacrificial death literally conveys a sense of the delicate balance between life and death in a movement which despite the ease of its delivery must be agonisingly difficult to achieve.

Given Bausch’s deserved status as high priestess of the modern dance movement it seems almost heretical to be negative but despite the performance quality this was at times a difficult and bleak evening. The tale of Iphigenia is one largely filled with pain and it is perhaps a mark of the production’s success that this is conveyed so powerfully it occasionally felt gruelling. Undoubtedly it is a privilege to see this rarely performed work and for Bausch acolytes or those keen to understand the development of her oeuvre and its impact on dance and theatre it’s a must see; just don’t expect an easy ride.