“Café Müller”, “The Rite of Spring”
Wuppertal Dance Theatre
Sadler's Wells Theatre
February 12 – 22, 2008
by John Percival
copyright 2008 by John Percival
Hardly anybody seems to remember London's first sight of Pina Bausch's choreography, danced at the Round House by some of her pupils from the Folkwang Dance Studio, Essen, where she became director on Kurt Jooss's retirement in the late 1960s. I think it might have been on Horst Koegler's recommendation that I made a point of catching the performance; it was certainly thanks to him (my contemporary, friend and colleague, then living in nearby Cologne and with a spare room) that I saw her Tanztheater Wuppertal from its quite early days. And I have been watching her work in Wuppertal and elsewhere ever since, as often as possible. So the two ballets from quite a time ago which she brought for her latest visit to Sadler's Wells, although both new to London, were both familiar to me on stage and film – and none the less welcome for that.
“Café Müller” (created 1978) is, you may remember, an evocation, to Purcell songs, of memories in a now empty café. We must assume that it is modelled on the café kept by Bausch's parents when she was young. This is one work that Bausch herself usually dances, appearing as an embodiment of her childhood self. But being unwell, she was replaced by Helena Pikon, a staff member who is rehearsal assistant for this ballet. Pikon looks amazingly like Bausch but is less dominant; I found that actually a benefit, since although it's a pleasure to catch Bausch's rare stage appearances, without her we can concentrate better on the other five dancers, notably Dominique Mercy — in a role he created — trying to recapture his early lover, and Nazareth Panadero, disguised by a red wig, scurrying through the room in her loneliness. Aida Vainieri was the lover, repeated sitting at a table and removing her upper garment to show the audience her bare back. The late Rolf Borzik's designs give the cast a setting of walls and tables they twist themselves against, and chairs to be thrown around for striking visual and sound effects.
Bausch's “Rite of Spring” (from 1975) ranks as one of the most vivid and moving treatments of Stravinsky's tremendous score – in my experience only the versions by Leonide Massine and Maurice Béjart can compare with hers, and it has to be said that these three “Rites” are very different from each other. Bausch brings sixteen women and as many men on to another of Borzik's revolutionary designs – in this instance a mound of earth filling most of the stage. Again the setting contributes powerfully to the total effect, as the dancers scrabble through violently energetic ensemblesbefore small, dark-haired Ruth Amarante is chosen as the terrified victim who must sacrifice herself in the frightening conclusion. Made to change into a red frock (used at first as a frightening symbol of trouble to come) from one of the standard flesh-coloured, almost transparent frocks worn by the other women, she develops the alarm which she has shown earlier into a full-grown terror before her long destructive solo. Dramatically, choreographically and in intensity, this “Rite” leaves the Royal Ballet's Covent Garden production, which was playing simultaneously, far, far behind. No wonder that Sadler's Wells – as usual with Bausch's visits – had the House Full sign prominently displayed.
It's only a pity that, for economy's sake, the splendidly inspiring music has to be played from recordings. Good recordings, but still less gripping than the Purcell could be, or than we hear when the Stravinsky is played live to accompany the Paris Opera Ballet's revival of “Rite”. Given the large orchestra Stravinsky insisted upon, however, plus the musicians for Purcell, I imagine a nobly generous sponsor would be needed to pay for that on top of already a cast of almost forty dancers.
Photos of "Rite of Spring" by Ulli Weiss.