The special artistic mix that hallmarks Pina Bausch’s peculiar brand of Tanztheater – a genre-bending theatrical cocktail of opera, movement, mime and spoken text – was first shaken together on 8 January 1977 (definitely not stirred, although it certainly caused a stir) with the world premiere of Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s Opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”. Some of these choreographic elements were present in the earlier works Bausch had created in Wuppertal, notably The Seven Deadly Sins, made six months earlier, but it was in Bluebeard that the full portfolio of these artistic instruments, which dominated her creative output from then onwards, came together for the first time. Many others choreographers have mixed these ingredients before and since but never with anything approaching the same alchemy.

Pina Bausch's <i>Bluebeard</i> © Maarten Vanden Abeele
Pina Bausch's Bluebeard
© Maarten Vanden Abeele

That this was the UK premiere of a work of such historical importance, more than forty years after its creation and a decade after the choreographer’s death, is remarkable, especially since her work is regularly seen in London (this performance brought my personal tally up to 33 of her productions – a bucket list with still a few more to go). The principal reason for this delay is that the Bartók estate withdrew the performance rights in 1994 and the revival has been enabled because the music is now out of copyright.

In Iphigenia in Tauris (1974) and Orpheus and Eurydice (1975), Bausch adapted opera in dance form but with Bluebeard, Bartók’s opera is merely a conceptual device that alludes to a narrative of sexual struggle. Duke Bluebeard has become an ordinary man, living in an empty, decrepit room into which has blown a carpet of dead leaves. Apart from a few collapsible chairs and soft pillows, his only furniture is a tape recorder on wheels, fixed to a spool on the ceiling. At the far end of his room are old-fashioned tall windows with shutters.

The opera is essentially a one-act duet for Bluebeard and his new wife, Judith, and these are the characters we first encounter. Bluebeard (Christopher Tandy) sits by his tape-recorder while Judith (Silvia Farias Heredia) lies amongst the leaves, arms rigidly outstretched like a fallen Barbie doll, wearing a pink backless, off-the-shoulder gown that – as the performance progresses – appears to defy all the normal rules of gravity. Bluebeard replays the first bars of the opera many times over and after each rewind he rushes to lie on top of Judith in a brief act of unrequited sexual congress before dragging her through the leaves and rushing back to the tape recorder to begin the sequence again.

Pina Bausch's <i>Bluebeard</i> © Evangelos Rodoulis
Pina Bausch's Bluebeard
© Evangelos Rodoulis

The opera lasts barely an hour but in this play/pause/rewind sequencing, Bausch’s theatrical interpretation – while still in one act – doubles the length and yet still does not include the full score (only Judith’s final aria, when she realises that Bluebeard murdered his former wives and that this fate also awaits her, is played without interruption).

Bausch’s oeuvre appears as one long continuum and many of the themes in Bluebeard re-appear in Café Müller (1978) not least in contrasting scenes of sexual violence and tender embrace, the confined boundaries of a single room and the violent crashing of bodies against the walls trying to escape this fixed boundary (in Bluebeard the women also climb into footholds cut into the walls). Layers of movement are repeated in cleverly crafted cycles (just occasionally less might be more). The sexual violence is discomfiting: men forcibly press women’s heads down to face their groin; and Bluebeard captures women with a lassoed bedsheet, swinging them around before depositing them in a heap (perhaps indicating those former wives). But, the sexual savagery works both ways and women often seem to have the upper hand, especially alongside the beefcake posing of a simpering, smiling posse of men in velvet briefs.

Pina Bausch's <i>Bluebeard</i> © Maarten Vanden Abeele
Pina Bausch's Bluebeard
© Maarten Vanden Abeele

The perpetual activity of the two principals is exhausting just to watch and both Tandy and Farias Heredia throw themselves headlong into the deepest recesses of vulnerability, brutality and emptiness in these challenging roles. Up until recent years, the Bausch ensemble seemed to comprise performers who would last forever but nowadays it is a new generation. This revival has been staged by Jan Minarik (who, as Jan Mindo, was the original Bluebeard) and Beatrice Libonati (an early Judith) on an extraordinary, athletic cast of dancers mixed between company members and guests; amongst the latter it was a particular pleasure to see the Mariinsky Ballet principal, Daria Pavlenko.

As with Bartók’s family, Bausch's Tanztheater is not to everyone’s taste, but sitting on the fence is never an option. Some people make for a hasty exit while many stand and cheer: I tend to side with the latter and, as the prototype to her unique style, this finely-shredded Bluebeard is to be cherished.

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