Der Fensterputzer, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Sadler’s Wells

t may be that designer Peter Pabst is the unsung hero of Tanztheater Wuppertal’s “World Cities” extravaganza. When the lights go down at Sadler’s Wells for Der Fensterputzer(The Window-washer), the stage is dominated by a vast mountain of glowing red flowers, over four metres high, nine metres across, looming out of a modernistic black-box stage. It is a moment of pure, surging drama.

Hong Kong is the city Bausch is commemorating in this installation of her travelogue, her series of essays of places her company has been, cultures she has ingested. A smiling woman welcomes us – or perhaps a wider population: “Good morning, thank you”, she repeats mechanically, as receptionists do, old-fashioned telephone operators, women behind cash-registers. “Good morning, thank you.”

Us? Perhaps, for we (or at least audience members in the front rows) are soon offered drinks – or a banana – by an increasingly frantic dancer, wanting desperately to fulfil our desires, if our desires can be encompassed in a glass of wine, or a piece of fruit.

Despite the lightness of tone for much of the evening, there is a constant undercurrent of futility, and yet also a stubborn refusal to be defeated. A woman walks up a tilted table; she slides back; she walks up again; and again.

Others learn. A man lifts his partner in a swooping back-dive, over and over, as another man stands by, giving instructions, then taking over, then returning the ever-turning woman back to her original partner; who is taught, who is teaching, shifts and blurs in this lovely dreamlike trio. There are also moments of great tenderness: a woman stands in front of a pair of Wellington boots. Her partner lifts her from behind, gently dropping her into the boots, a delicate moment of grace.

Yet while there are gorgeous episodes – the sound of fireworks is accompanied by the ensemble throwing up handfuls of the flowers, like living feux de joie – there is a patchy quality to the evening, which stubbornly refuses to cohere. A car is brought in, a woman falls back, others appear to cry, or perhaps laugh, over her, the car is carried out again. Why? Why not, seems to be the only response.

It is as if Bausch were doodling in her studio, but without the urge to edit anything out. The two halves of the evening are more recapitulation than development – the second half has more ensemble work (which is very welcome, especially a lovely clapping piece), more talking, including fragments of poems by Wislawa Szymborska, more humour (a dancer-usher demands to see tickets with menace and more than a bit of Miss Whiplash). But it is different only in emphasis, not in kind. There are no surprises, and had the first half stood alone, we would not have lost anything.

Ten productions, 20 days, two theatres. You can’t really expect every one to be a hit, and truth to tell, some of Bausch’s travelogue pieces are stronger than others. This is not to say it is bad – Bausch could not choreograph a dull evening. But it is not top flight, and at over three hours, that’s a lot of low-level flying.

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