Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof succeeds for a number of reasons—careful pacing, humor masterfully balanced with relative tragedy, moments of explosive, actual choreography—but its greatest success lies in its painting of contemporary society, and thus occurs when audiences recognize bits of themselves in the characters on stage. Kontakthof is a double whammy of a piece because it places adult characters in an adolescent setting: a school dance. There is a happy, slight groan of recognition that rumbles through the audience when a particular moment really resonates—as when  women in party dresses and high heels slowly traverse the stage on the diagonal, readjusting their obviously painful shoes with tiny, mincing steps and occasional pauses or ankle circles. The audience murmurs because they understand, because this is something that has happened to them before.

Bausch created Kontakthof in 1974, but, 50 years later, it doesn’t seem to have aged a day. The piece begins with the dancers seated in chairs along the stage’s perimeter. One by one, they approach the front and show their teeth, check their profiles; we aren’t sure if they are looking in a mirror or responding to unseen demands. (Much of the piece functions this way, actually.) The men are dressed in suits, the women in beautiful, shiny cocktail dresses. (Such beautiful dresses!) At one point, and subsequently, throughout the performance, they line up on opposite sides of the stage: The men are seated in chairs and are violently grasping and tweaking and squeezing and tickling the air; the women are deflecting unseen advances. Slowly the two groups near each other, and you realize that the women are responding to the men’s violent motions. What began as a moment of inexplicable humor becomes much more serious—almost predatory.

Later, one man and one woman are alone on stage, again on opposite sides to each other. They shed their clothes for each other, two naïve kids with crushes on each other being vulnerable in the best way they know how. They are eventually joined onstage by the other dancers, who just watch, alternately amused and encouraging. It’s funny and sweet, but never voyeuristic.

It is wonderfully refreshing to see so many different bodies on stage, of different ages, shapes and sizes. These are people who have lived, we immediately know, people who can dance secure in the knowledge that they know what they are dancing. One charming scene lines the dancers up in chairs at the stage’s lip, facing the audience. Everyone speaks at the same time of a particular moment in their romantic past—we are only given highlighted snippets as another dancer, standing, travels from performer to performer with a microphone. You almost believe the anecdotes they relate, even after the performance is over. Their gravitas on stage has made them the most believable of narrators.

Near the piece’s end, one woman stands alone—a wallflower. She is approached by first one man and then by many men, who squeeze her cheeks and pat her rump and jiggle her arm and change places around her. At first it is funny. It’s as if she’s being examined for a sale. Then, suddenly, it is heartbreaking: She’s just another victim of the relentless male gaze. This is what makes Ms. Bausch’s work so magical and yet human: It’s skillful blend of the comic and tragic, the surreal with the mundane. Other choreographers might have moments of this balance, but the late Ms. Bausch had it in spades.