The most memorable element of Pina Bausch’s Auf dem Gebirge Hat Man ein Geschrei Gehört (On the Mountain a Cry Was Heard) is the thick layer of special dirt that blankets the stage at Sadlers Wells – a clean soil, chemical-free, that cushions the dancers as they roll around in it. The dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal spent most of Thursday evening flailing around in it, diving into it, tossing each other into it. That is, when they weren’t racing through the auditorium, stripping between intervals of piano playing, or attempting to scale the proscenium wall.

© Ulli Weiss
© Ulli Weiss

For one sequence, the dancers dragged in two dozen pine trees, then dragged them offstage again. (Stagehands appear to have been given the night off.)

They danced to Billie Holiday’s feverish protest song, “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in the American South, Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests”, an old Fred Astaire tune, Edith Piaf, and schmaltz played live by a dignified ensemble identified in the program as An Orchestra of Senior Musicians.

The dancers also sang and chanted and screamed and muttered, mostly about being jerked around by the opposite sex. By the end of the evening, these exceptional performers were exhausted and bedraggled. But that’s par for the course when you’re dancing Pina.

Themes of sadism, mind control, and male aggression in this work that dates back to 1984 ring no less true in 2015.

The title refers to the biblical report of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Here, the innocents are not baby boys, however, but mostly women – whose bodies are used like weapons and battering rams by men attacking other men.

A woman in a silky black chemise performs a ritual in which she grovels and prostrates herself in the dirt, lifting her chemise, upon which a sinister man in a red Speedo, swimcap and goggles, and pink rubber gloves slashes her back with a bright red lipstick. Brainwashed, she continues the ritual, even after the sinister man loses interest and walks off.

Two groups of thugs (in white dress shirts and dark slacks – Pina’s men are invariably attired in evening wear, when they’re not in Speedos or cross-dressing) attack a woman and a man and drag them, kicking and screaming, toward each other, forcing them into a kiss.

The dirt becomes a river, the locus of a ferocious dragon boat race, with teams of “rowers” paddling madly. 

A “drowning” woman is rescued by two dancers who fling a mattress onto the dirt and haul her on to it with a strap. This scene repeats (as do many in the piece, not always to intriguing effect) and everyone dives in with her, flopping around like beached dolphins. 

A woman poses in front of the silver-haired orchestra, as if preparing to sing with them. Instead, she twitches and slaps at imaginary mosquitoes. Then she runs into the arms of a quartet of men, who lift her into an imaginary canoe, which she rows, high above their shoulders, as they speed her down a long diagonal, as if down a swiftly flowing stream. This is the single most arresting image of the evening, testament to Pina’s gift for crafting a dreamlike atmosphere, often precarious, in the midst of some horror or quotidian nightmare.

But these handful of images of power and beauty are quickly buried under a mass of leaden, unimaginative material. Even the mildly interesting vignettes peter out gracelessly, or are enhanced only by the glorious puffs and wisps of smoke engineered by Pina’s long-time collaborator and set designer Peter Pabst.

The difference between this work and Pina’s greatest pieces – which include Rite of Spring, Bluebeard, 1980, Vollmond, Kontakthof – springs not just from a dearth of imagination but also from a lack of discipline in containing and shaping the vignettes and tying them together, a lack of unifying style. Pina’s hand seems strangely absent here, despite her customary device of signaling the transition from a nasty scene to a lighthearted or absurd one with a musical shift to swing or rock ‘n roll. 

The juxtaposition of the grim with the pretty and the playful in Mountain simply doesn’t ignite. Billie Holiday in two verses of “Strange Fruit” achieves what Pina fails to do in 145 minutes on stage:

"Southern trees bear strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh."

 

Mountain is not too long – we sit happily in the dark through hours of Pina – it’s just too empty.

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