This performance at Sadler's Wells celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first London performances by Tanztheater Wuppertal, beginning the import of Pina Bausch’s repertoire with more than 20 of her works being presented in the UK since then. If the legacy of Bausch includes a signature work, there would be a number of viable claimants (not least Café Muller and Le Sacre du printemps) but Kontakthof would certainly be up there amongst them. In any event, this foundation stone for her unique genre of Tanztheater was the production that began London’s love affair with everything Bausch. 

Emma Barroman, Oleg Stepanov and Tsai-Chin Yu in Kontakthof
© Tanztheater Wuppertal

Kontakthof is a hybrid of the German words for “contact” and “court”, and the work is essentially about courtship. The set is something like a dance hall with a curtained-off stage, a piano and chairs arranged around the walls; and the 22 participants, split evenly between men and women, enact a wild and weirdly wonderful set of repetitive activities, performed to the catchy, syrupy, tango-infused music that was popular in the Weimar Republic. It’s hard to get Juan Llossas’ O Fräulein Grete or Du Bist nicht die Erste out of one’s head. Bausch chose the score for the work’s premiere in December 1978, since when research has outed Llossas as a fascist whose music was heavily promoted by the Nazis. Irrespective of these nasty politics (Llossas died in 1957), it is important that his posthumous contribution to Kontakthof has thus far survived the cult of cancellation because, without it, this important heritage work would be greatly devalued.

Only four dancers remain who had any experience of performing Kontakthof prior to this revival. Authenticity and continuity have been assured through the coaching of Julie Shanahan (who performed in the piece for over 30 years), Franko Schmidt and Jo Ann Endicott (from the original cast) but significant detail in the work is personal to each performer and so, inevitably, with 18 newbies, some aspects are altered. Now it is but a reflection of the original yet still memorable in many new ways.

Tanztheater Wuppertal in Pina Bausch's Kontakthof
© Tanztheater Wuppertal

Significant responsibility fell on Canadian dancer, Emma Barrowman (who joined the company in 2015), the inheritor of the central female role previously shaped by Endicott and Shanahan; she brought humour, expressiveness and pathos to a performance of a similar maturity to those of her predecessors. Familiarity is endemic to the Bausch experience: each of her dancers retained a “character” that transcended all the works they performed in. That aspect can still be found in the reassuring presence of Andrey Berezin as the controller – the man with the notebook – who joined the company in1994, before many of the current generation of dancers were born; together with Eddie Martinez, Michael Strecker and Nayoung Kim, each of whom joined the company in the last century. Among the new generation, Taylor Drury stood out as the woman “from Paris” who opened proceedings by walking solo downstage to confront the audience with a sequence of exercises (including an exaggerated open-mouthed smile) which the others then repeat.

The repeated actions in parade formation, always moving on the diagonal or in a circle, with synchronised movements hooked onto the hypnotic rhythms in the music are a frequent element of the work and they are interspersed with activities that might take place in such a community hall: photography, a film club, riding a coin-operated mechanical horse (Emily Castelli’s requests to audience members for coins was part of the ongoing humour), piano playing and group games (always a contest of men versus women). 

Tsai Wei-Tien and ensemble in Kontakthof
© Tanztheater Wuppertal

The dance hall must have had a sizeable dressing room since the women regularly change clothes, from slinky, body-hugging evening dresses and high-heeled shoes to long nightdresses and back again. One couple take naked attraction to the extreme by stripping altogether while seated and staring longingly at each other from opposite sides of the stage. The intervention of the German black and white nature film with its deadpan voiceover by Richard Wilson (he of Victor Meldrew fame and a long-term supporter of Bausch’s work) is both hilarious and relevant since the vintage film concerns the mating habits of various breeds of duck on the River Elbe. 

Kontakthof is a creature of its time and, as such, the intermingled courtships are invariably heterosexual and there are moments of abuse and intimidation that now make for uncomfortable viewing, although – but for one instance – the abuse is always in both directions and for every woman who is pulled back by her hair there is a man kneed in the genitals. However, one scene stands apart where a woman (often in the past, Nazareth Pandero, but here portrayed by Ekaterina Shushakova) is manipulated, pinched, touched and slapped by all eleven men while she remains sadly impassive. It clearly had a point but it’s a difficult one to still express with any attempt at humour in today’s climate.