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REVIEW: PINA BAUSCH'S 'VIKTOR'

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 27 SEPTEMBER 2016 — The most amazing thing about this exceptional company is how the level, the vitality and the spirit of Pina Bausch, the German choreographic genius, continue in her pieces seven years after her death. Her works are performed with the freshness and spontaneity with which they were created, many of them as long as 30 years ago.

Much of this is due, Dominique Mercy told me some time ago, to the fact that the more experienced company members continue and strengthen their extraordinary legacy by working patiently alongside a new generation of dancers,* all with different backgrounds and different cultures, who bring their own experiences, feelings and fantasies to each work. Dancers hail from all over the world, from the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and South America as well as from many European countries, over 15 different nationalities with as many languages and as many different personalities. There are the younger dancers as well as the older generation, tall dancers, petite dancers, curvaceous dancers as well as the svelte, their common feature being their passion for what they do. No one dancer leaves an audience indifferent.


Tanztheater Wuppertal in Viktor
Choreography: Pina Bausch
Photo: Uwe Schinkel

Mercy, who worked with Bausch since the formation of her company in 1973 explained that in addition, there was a vocabulary accompanied by a very precise text to follow for the performance of each work. Moreover, even in her lifetime, it wasn’t unusual for certain roles to be given to new dancers while other roles were performed by the original interpreters thus developing a dialogue between the ‘veterans’ and the youngsters, the energy of one sparking off a response from the other. Julie Anne Stanzak, Helena Pikon,  Lutz Forster and  Eddie Martinez among others, interpreters who worked with Bausch for over 20 years, some for over 30,  were ‘trained’ from their early beginnings to pass on their roles to other dancers.

The charismatic Dominique Mercy, now 66, is still dancing, but the more physical roles are now given to the younger artists, chosen as much for their personalities as for their technical abilities. Such is the case for the British-born dancer, Scott Jennings, 23, who joined the troupe in 2014 after completing his training at the London Contemporary Dance School. Another outstanding newcomer is the young American dancer, Breanna O’Mara, from The Julliard School in New York, who caused a sensation in Viktor, performing a sublime solo with her expressive face and long shining auburn hair. She shuffled imperceptibly forwards on her bottom along the stage of the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, mesmerizing the audience with her rapid, whiplash neck and arm movements.

Eight performances of Viktor were given at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, at the invitation of the Theatre de la Ville. Created in Rome with the aid of dramatist Raimund Hogue in 1986, Viktor is the first in a series of works inspired by stays in various cities throughout the world. It’s less about Rome itself and more about the sensations each of the dancers had whilst they were there, and hence the surprising décor, far from the colourful Italian cliché one might imagine.


Tanztheater Wuppertal in Viktor
Choreography: Pina Bausch
Photo:  Zerrin Aydin-Herwegh

Viktor is set in a sort of massive grave with high mud walls rising on all three sides complete with a gravedigger shoveling soil onto the stage below. And onto this stage stalks the superb Julie Shanahan, radiant in a flamboyant red dress to the sound of Khatchatourian’s romantic music** crashing around her. But she has no arms. No matter, on comes Dominique Mercy to ‘protect’ her with a luxurious fur coat into which she snuggles. A link is made shortly after when she interprets a superb solo using only her arms, while later on in the piece she appears with a wooden pole across her shoulders replacing arms, from which clothes hang.

It’s hard, if not impossible to say what Viktor is about or whether indeed this person exists. The work can only be seen as a slice of life as Bausch sees it. A wedding ceremony is held, but the man and the woman lie dead on the floor. A buxom lady in a green dress arrives, jiggling her generous breasts at the audience, while a bizarre auction is held. Precious antiques are held up for auction, a painting, sculptures, but then an ornate picture frame degenerating into more mundane objects being offered including clocks, a rolling pin, a pepper mill,  a tennis racquet, and even an ashtray. Someone’s worldly possessions one is led to think, but then matters become confused when a man leading two handsome woolly sheep arrives. Was this an auction after someone’s death? Nothing is really what it seems, and particularly disturbing is the four-legged creature in high-heeled shoes which scurries across the floor.


Tanztheater Wuppertal in Viktor
Choreography: Pina Bausch
Photo: Szito

Bausch thrives on the unexpected, and if the audience begins to tire of this seemingly unrelated and nonsensical succession of events, then it is at that moment that the whole company bursts onto the stage, advancing in waves from the back to the front, repeatedly, again and again in unison, with gut wrenching, repetitive movements…..yet nothing is truly ‘repetitive’ with Bausch. Her choreographic language is sensational. Weeks after a performance, months later, in one’s mind remains the vision of her company snaking across the stage in curving lines, in couples and singly, wearing nothing less than evening dress and enigmatic smiles.

Viktor contains the absurd; it’s plaintive, poignant and by moments, poetic. A discreet and mysterious Dominique Mercy is ever present in the piece, first as a quiet, elegant observer, hat on his head, and overcoat slung nonchalantly over his shoulders, hands clasped on his knees, and later as a bent figure covered in black who crashes into the dancers who ignore him. Relief from some over-long passages comes with music from the 1930’s and the vision of Julie Shanahan swinging through the air, her long, pale blue chiffon dress billowing out, to the strains of "The way you look Tonight". She’s followed by the rest of the women, all clad in beautiful evening dresses, who are pushed by the men as they cling onto rope swings hanging down from above. Moments of nostalgia were added to the tragic and the sobering, to the cynical or the resigned. Although Bausch makes us laugh, it’s rarely, in Viktor, with joy.


Dominique Mercy in Viktor
Choreography: Pina Bausch
Photo: Jochen Viehoff

In a work lasting some three and a half hours, and being predominantly theatre as opposed to dance theatre, interest waned from time to time, but strangely enough, when the curtain came down, all I personally wanted was for the work to continue, a feeling shared by many around me, drawn in by the piece and reluctant to leave the auditorium. 

*11 new members have been hired since 2012, and the company now boasts 34 artists as opposed to 30 in the choreographer’s lifetime.

**The accompanying score also contained extracts from Tchaikovsky as well as popular melodies from Tuscany, Lombardy and Sicily.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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