The late great Pina Bausch is a legend of contemporary dance. Her work is renowned for having changed the scope of what we consider ‘dance’, and is so individual it is almost a genre in its own right. So how does one review a Pina Bausch piece and do it justice? In fact, how does someone born almost a decade after the creation of 1980 even begin to respond to the piece?

Ensemble sunbathing © Ulli Weiss
Ensemble sunbathing
© Ulli Weiss

I had my first experience of watching a Bausch piece when Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed 1980 at Sadler’s Wells last Saturday. It exceeded expectations I didn't realise I had; it was unutterably hilarious, inconceivably mad and deeply touching.

I don't think one has to be an expert to see that Bausch’s works (1980 and what I hear of other pieces) make a strong impression on their audience, communicating via fundamental principles of humanity. The links 1980 creates between game-playing, fears and sexuality, down to the simple smell of grass that permeates the auditorium, appeals to each audience member – albeit differently – in some elemental way.

The stage is an off-kilter pastoral setting: turf-covered, with an ornamental deer in the background, an ancient-looking television set and microphone nearer the audience. A lone male figure enters, sits, adjusts the microphone and begins to eat from a large bowl, dedicating each spoonful ‘pour maman’ and ‘pour papa’. A woman sits, sparks a lighter, sings “Happy Birthday to me”, blows out the flame and counts “one”. So begins 1980.

Lutz Förster, sunbathing © Ulli Weiss
Lutz Förster, sunbathing
© Ulli Weiss

At times we’re at an upper-class garden party, with all the guests dressed-to-impress; at others we’re in some kind of wild, undulating playground that could be something Willy Wonka dreamed up. At others still, we watch individuals lay down on blankets and uncover themselves to varying degrees of nudity in their increasingly ludicrous attempts to sunbathe in some kind of public park – sunglasses, nipple-covers and bare bottoms galore – with a harmonium standing centre-stage. Bausch’s world of music is as eclectic as her visual aesthetic, from pieces by Brahms, Debussy and Dowland to a downright silly harmonium solo and a surge of jazz drowning out Robin Brightman’s violin solo. 

There is a recurring parade taking the dancers into the audience, through which they give air-hostess grins while they perform mildly sexual gestures, as if aiming to showcase their bodies at their best in their party dresses. Before the intermission is bluntly announced, tea is served to several audience members while magician Reiner Roth performs tricks and a game of “ferryman, ferryman” takes place upstage.

1980 has no storyline but is comprised of a string of encounters between 19 strong characters, each individual and memorable, as they play games, tell stories about their childhood and compete for attention. Recently appointed artistic director Lutz Förster, who is too tall for the bed he lies down in, delivers an ode to his “dear chair” and exhibits his nude body face-down on the lawn with a baby’s rattle. Förster orchestrates various competitions, instructing the dancers to line up and show us a bit of leg: “This isn’t a leg, it’s the beginning of a sculpture!” They each share three things about dinosaurs, their fears and their respective countries of origin: “We didn’t have any dinosaurs in America. I guess the Indians ate them all.”

The leg competition, 1980 © Ulli Weiss
The leg competition, 1980
© Ulli Weiss

Mechthild Großmann’s low, husky voice rings out across the auditorium as she flirts with an audience member, tells of how she carries candles around, and seems to enjoy the memory of being punished: “I’d rather get slapped than be alone in the dark.” Wearing a large leather jacket, her frizzy hair huge, and comical, sinewy legs visible, she makes various comments ending each with “Fantastic!” The audience love her. The vivacious Julie Shanahan is hysterical about her new rubies, and innocently tells of childhood mishaps, saying: “I couldn’t help it, could I?”

Lutz Förster in 1980 © Ulli Weiss
Lutz Förster in 1980
© Ulli Weiss

1980 is performed by 19 dancers, 2 musicians, a magician and a gymnast. Only four of the company’s original dancers remain, and all are of vastly varying ages (some visibly older than one might expect a performing dancer to be). Several of the younger dancers probably weren’t born when 1980 was made. But does that matter? Some themes possibly resonate differently, but Bausch’s work seems to communicate on the most basic level, transcending age, gender, nationality, race and sexuality. It’s basically about being human. 

It was a long time before the company performed Bausch’s work after her death in 2009. Her death posed huge challenges: whether to create new work or rely wholly on Bausch’s legacy; whether to permit other companies to perform Bausch’s works; whether the company had a future without her. They were right to continue performing. 

1980 is possibly the maddest, funniest and most touching thing I have ever seen on stage (and possibly the longest too, at 3 hours and 35 minutes). It was hard to digest, and I wouldn’t call it “dance” exactly, but nor is it “theatre”. It is, quite simply, Pina Bausch. I came away feeling a very personal connection to all those I had seen on stage, longing to see them perform again.

*****