An über sold out Tanztheater Wuppertal has presented the newest, still untitled addition to their repertory at the Berlin summer rendez-vous for dance, Tanz im August. This is not a trivial matter. After nine years of mourning, the company is ready for a step into the unknown: since 1973 they have only created with Pina Bausch. This year is the festival’s 30th anniversary and there are other dance celebrations in the city. The theatre was packed. I was curious, and so were many. But it is not a strong stride we are presented with, rather it is the precarious step of the sightless figure in a nightgown tripping against chairs in Café Müller.

Tanztheater Wuppertal in <i>Neues Stuck II</i> © Mats Backer
Tanztheater Wuppertal in Neues Stuck II
© Mats Backer

It is not easy stepping in Bausch’s shoes. The comparison with her works is, of course, unavoidable, paired with a tight scrutiny of the references. The Norwegian playwright and choreographer Alan Lucien Øyen is, with New Piece II, the second guest invited by the company – besides the Greek Dimitris Papaioannou with New Piece I – Since She presented in May this year – to have attempted such a task. Previously the company had only hosted, in 2015, four young choreographers to create short pieces. So Øyen is the first to attempt a 210 minutes (interval included) dance-marathon à la Bausch, which in comparison to some of his earlier works – his five and a half hours 2013 Coelacanth for the Norwegian Opera and Ballet in particular – must have felt short. And indeed his bauschian shadow-land – death being the central theme – full of references and meta-devices, precisely timed and attuned feels shorter than what it actually is. The structure of the piece is surely sound. It is a clockwork – ironically the clock's batteries on stage are taken out at the very beginning – with well-timed scene changes as the several units of the set (Alex Eales) rotate as gearwheels generating an apparently infinite background. In this never-land, retro interiors of dilapidated homes appear populated by fifties props and costumes (Stine Sjøgren): telephones with receivers and rotary dials, and the many shades of brown of shirts, trousers and skirts. We are stuck in a time lapse of fragmented moments, instantaneous Polaroid shots working in reverse, with sudden appearances and slow disappearances, of which we do not see the end. These suspended narrations are full of winks to the originals: the dancers constantly smoke and the music is also a medley of different pieces, mostly of contemporary music with at times some oldies so loved by Bausch.

Starting with the company rehearsing dance steps on stage, the work weaves in a macabre catalogue of narrations linked to death. Some are longer, some are fragments of present situations, and some appear as memories only. The several strands reappear as echoes or substantial adjuncts to the narrations at different points in the work, giving it cohesiveness. We witness the lives of a lady who lost her brother in Turkey, of another who tries to organize the resting place for her suicidal father, of an orphan who only heard of his veteran father through the memories of his mother, of a woman with perfect hair and make up in her perfect home who commits suicide and finally of the grandmother who ask her niece to hold her hand while she passes. We navigate through remorse, guilt, sadness, appeasement and love, emotions scattered as the light refracted by the imaginary chandelier of the dancing hall in which we see the couples dancing in their most elegant clothes glitters. Still, they remain impalpable, distant, almost sanitized, as if scenes from a tacky Hollywood film. In this spectacle of death, each scene is ironically twisted or disrupted. And there is a lot of text. It is not tanztheater rather ‘theater’-tanz with very few dance sections that act as interludes for the change in scenography and are totally disconnected from the scenes. It is as if in these moments of liquid dance the performers were gapping for movement, choked as they were by the text. Don’t get me wrong, the Tanztheater Wuppertal are great actors but they are also great dancers, and we see too little of this in the dreamy atmosphere created by Øyen. Reality is eroded by dreams, as in Jon Fosse’s Morning and Evening, but here it does not have the same depth.

Stepping in Bausch’s shoes is not easy and whilst Øyen’s work is thoughtful in structure, it lacks in the way the themes are dealt with and lacks dancing. Visually pleasing, it is also at times awkwardly funny, but it misses the punch of Bausch’s work. It is a titanic work that does not feel like one and for this reason, Øyen’s enterprise should be saluted. The Tanztheater Wuppertal still attracts the audience, but for how long? The company needs stability and a vision. At the moment, it is stumbling with its eyes closed.