Most choreographers celebrating an opening night performance tend to take centre stage at the curtain call, at least for a while, ostentatiously giving and receiving mutual appreciation with their performers. Alan Lucien Øyen is not so bold, surreptitiously joining the line-up, standing by the wings, almost unnoticed and without any particular fanfare. One sensed that this was not choreographed modesty but a genuine desire to be absorbed within the company.

Andrey Berexin Julie Shanahan and Tsai Chin Yu in <i>Bon Voyage Bob</i> © Mats Bäcker
Andrey Berexin Julie Shanahan and Tsai Chin Yu in Bon Voyage Bob
© Mats Bäcker

Øyen had no shared history with Bausch. It was only in 2016 that he saw his first live work by her company. Nonetheless, he appears to have soaked up the legacy as completely as he merged into the performers at that curtain call. He deserves much praise for creating a work that also integrates stylistically into the Bausch repertoire; but then, his sixteen dancers contained many artists whose whole careers have been based in Wuppertal. They brought decades of experiencing Bausch’s creative methodology to inform the making of Bon Voyage, Bob . Héléna Pikon and Nazareth Panadero joined the company in the 1970s, Julie Shanahan in the 80s; while Regina Advento, Rainer Behr, Andrey Berezin, Nayoung Kim, Eddie Martinez and Aida Vainieri have all been company members for more than 20 years. This multiple longevity of service is a major part of what makes this company so special.

Øyen utilises spoken text to a significant degree with long snatches of dialogue interspersed with a perambulating set and brief bouts of dance. Invariably, at least until near the end, this is articulated through anguished solos, by Behr, Christopher Tandy and Emma Barrowman, punctuated by the odd duet. The dance, however, merely flavours the theatre and here we are in the hands of experts. Berezin dominates the early exchanges as a heartless undertaker, occupying two lengthy scenes, first with Pikon, exploring the circumstances of her brother’s death; and then unsympathetically scolding Kim for not prematurely predicting her father’s demise in order to have pre-booked a choice plot in the cemetery. He makes an offer for an existing grave to be shared. In one way or another, the work is about mortality, death and bereavement and these opening scenes focus variously on dramatic narrative, dark humour and poignancy; the latter coming into sharper focus when one realises that the people being discussed and their relationships to the performers are real.

The company’s natural disregard for the fourth wall is also well evidenced from the beginning with the gravelly voice of Panadero speaking directly to the audience from downstage, replacing the usual bland announcements about filming and mobile phones (I rather hope that Sadler’s Wells have recorded this for ongoing use – so much more fun)! The performers play an improvised game of Hangman with the audience shouting out letters (and narrowly beating the drop) while Advento (in vintage costume) “sells” cigarettes from the aisles. Smoking plays a large part in proceedings, with performers habitually lighting up in another link to mortality, perhaps even to Bausch’s own death from cancer, five days’ after its diagnosis, in 2009.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in <i>Bon Voyage Bob</i> © Mats Bäcker
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bon Voyage Bob
© Mats Bäcker

There is a notable film noir influence to the overall design quality, integrating elegant costumes (by Stine Sjøgren), discrete lighting (Martin Flack) and Alex Eales’ multi-purpose set, which revolves to focus on several “film studios” featuring an undertaker’s office looking out into the street through a plate glass window; hotel room; kitchen; bedroom; and an Adelaide church in which Shanahan relives the experience of a funeral. Often, in the background, through gaps in the set, performers can be seen carrying items or casually walking through from one area to another.

The eclectic musical choices co-ordinated by Gunnar Innvaer (there are 28 music credits) present a significant spectrum of moods, from the lushness of Nat King Cole’s For Sentimental Reasons to the Swedish rock of Christoffer Franzén’s Lights & Motion with tango (Carlos Gardel), classical, Billie Holiday and Tom Waits in this pick-and mix-soundtrack. The work is busy and long, both of which could describe many of Bausch’s later pieces but, here the workshop atmosphere exposes several scenes that could be edited or omitted to make Bob’s farewell sharper. It ran 35 minutes longer than the three hours predicted in the programme; and it was an hour longer than the material merited. Some aspect of the creative process seemed to have been overlooked between the evolution of material and its performance.

Øyen may have come to Bausch very late but his effort to add something to the repertoire in Wuppertal is nonetheless a worthy one even though I sense a dramaturg and some judicial editing would have improved it further.