If you haven’t seen Tanztheater Wuppertal on stage before, Masurca Fogo (1998) makes for a good introduction. Whilst not one of choreographer Pina Bausch’s masterworks, it’s a great performance which features some wonderful opportunities to dive (quite literally for some) into Bausch’s fantastic world.

The piece inscribes itself in Tanztheater Wuppertal’s world cities-inspired series. After Viktor (Rome, 1986), Palermo, Palermo (Sicily, 1989) and Tanzabend II (Madrid, 1991), it’s in Lisbon that Bausch and her troupe set residency in 1997. The series ended with Pina Bausch's last work, Como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si (Santiago, 2009).

The warmth and sensuality of the sun-drenched Portuguese capital soaks through the colourful and comical scenes, and the Fado soundscape provides melancholy aplenty. The Bausch-esque, see-through floral dresses, worn by typically bra-less women, are dust free, yet as the women shake the ruffles, one senses a tremor of southern European sadness. If you’ve been to Lisbon (and I went in the midst of Portugal’s economic crisis in 2007, in sweltering August) you’ll know why it fits with the choreographer’s relentless, inquisitive and at times suitably absurd depictions of the paradoxes of our material existence. For Bausch asks questions, and her audience seeks answers. Tanztheater Wuppertal’s performance is mostly about our needs and desires, the tensions pervading our social construct, the bias of cultural etiquette and ultimately the weirder, sometimes even obscure behaviours we all try to repress. 

Bausch approaches these paradigms with a combination of brutal honesty and touching poetry. A barefoot, lone Rainer Behr soul-searches as he rolls on the floor, before joining a herd of men-turned-sheep drooling around the seductive Silvia Farias Heredia. Women sitting atop chairs orgasm alarmingly fast as a man lifts and turns the said chairs around his waist, impassive. A magnetic Nazareth Panadero recalls making good money luring men under her skirts (“A job is a job”) whilst Cristiana Morganti strokes a hen and tries to get the poor animal to feed on watermelon. The luminous Regina Advento commands the stage with a contagious but disconcerting smile, runs around the theatre balancing a pot of water on her head and plastic laundry buckets in her hands. Later she’s seen multitasking in a portable bath, cleaning dishes in the tub whilst bathing in her pool of bubbles.

Bausch’s comique de circonstance is funny, but it’s somewhat tragic. Clad in a retro swimsuit and proudly wearing a splash-proof snorkelling mask, one of the women glides across a makeshift swimming pool (a large plastic cloth held up by two of Tanztheather Wuppertal’s dancers on both ends of the stage, filled with water to barely ankle-height). It’s comical, but unnerving, to see her and those who follow suit rejoice and delight in what is, in effect, so little water that they only manage to glide halfway across the stage before having to run back and start gliding across again. Ultimately, it’s short lived entertainment, and the dancers hurriedly busy themselves elsewhere. Ironically, a rhinoceros dragging itself across the stage remains undisturbed by all the excitement, and the animal’s weariness is all the more palpable when it’s left alone at the end, slowly making its way across the stage towards what we hope (but doubt) will be calmer shores.

There are a few uncomfortable moments too, notably when a man forces Julie Shanahan to fish fruit out of a bucket of water with her teeth. He’s physically violent, and she is constrained to obey as we are made to watch her, passive witnesses to her humiliation and suffering, in the hands of a forceful man. 

Bausch’s work is powerful because it lays bare for us to face some of our most suppressed and obscure behaviours. Our common intelligence and collective efforts have allowed us to build and sustain organised, and, for the most part, coherent societies. But humans aren’t perfect, and they aren’t always fair and our primal instincts can take over. It's our innermost difficult and truest of emotions that Pina Bausch sets free onstage, and that makes her work singular and inspiring.

Today, her legacy lays in the hands of the seasoned dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal. Regina Advento, Andreiy Berezin, Ditta Miranda Kasjfi, Cristina Morganti, Nazareth Panadero, Fernando Suels Mendoza and Julie Shanahan (to name but a few) are charismatic performers. They command the stage and cherish Pina Bausch’s vision with passion, humility and integrity.