Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch revive one of the late choreographer’s original and most startling works. In Bluebeard, relationships between men and women are laid bare in all their ugliness and beauty.
Premiering in 1977, Bluebeard. While listening to a tape recording of Bela Bartok’s Opera ‘Duke Bluebeards’ Castle, or as it is more commonly known, Bluebeard, dramatically altered the landscape of modern dance. Developing the technique established in earlier pieces such as The Rite of Spring, Bluebeard fuses classical, balletic choreographic language with theatricality, and in so doing challenges and provokes audiences to confront the diversity of the human experience, in all its beauty and ugliness.
Romantic relationships and male-female interaction frequently take centre stage in her work. During the original rehearsals, Bausch often questioned dancers on their own observations and experiences, their loves and losses, desires and fears, as part of her creative process. The result of this practise still is startlingly raw and candid; Bausch’s choreography is imbued with sincerity and performed with intense and exposed emotion. Bluebeard is no exception to this, and offers an early interrogation of male-female relationships in which Bausch courageously spotlighted the dark side of romance, lifting the curtain on 1970s taboo subjects of domestic abuse, sexual violence, obsession, dependency and submission.
For Bluebeard, Bausch borrowed from Bela Bartok’s opera, which is based on the French folktale of a man who was in the habit marrying and subsequently killing a series of women. In Bartok’s retelling, there are only two characters, Duke Bluebeard and his wife Judith. In the one-act opera, the pair arrive to Bluebeard’s castle where Judith finds seven locked doors. Defying Bluebeard, Judith unlocks the doors to reveal the horrors within. The final door reveals the bodies of Bluebeard’s three previous wives. Rather than recounting Bartok’s story, Bausch interprets and responds to the narrative’s themes, using them to generate powerful, disquieting imagery: a man repeatedly wrenches a woman’s face down to his crotch, a woman heaves and folds under the weight of a male body, a man successively captures and discards the bodies of women, then takes a seat atop the pile of bodies stacked on a groaning wooden chair.
In one of the most disturbing scenes, the men, side-by-side, stride toward the stage with wildly exaggerated and disfigured smiles, gradually removing their clothing and emphasising the masculinity of their forms. Bausch’s richly symbolic iconography embodies and elaborates Bluebeard’s ruthlessness and relentlessness and Judith’s agony, her fear, her resistance, and perhaps most uncomfortably, her submission. For what makes Bausch’s Bluebeard such a profoundly uncomfortable experience is that it exposes that the boundaries between love and pain, passion and violence can be blurred, breached, broken. The performers’ voices are hugely effective in communicating this: limp wails of surrender can be mistaken for cries of sexual ecstasy, eruptions of wild exaggerated laughter resemble wails of terror.
The works prevailing sense of tension and discomfort is perpetuated by the crunching of dead leaves strewn across the stage – made worse with every movement – the obsessive stopping, starting and replaying of the soundtrack at Bluebeard’s control and stiff, awkward, repetitive movements carving tracks that remain like scars in the disturbed sea of leaves.
All these elements are brought into an uncomfortable interaction to make Bausch’s almost two hour long work a demanding and often punishing experience. As the women oscillate between vulnerability and strength, and the men between control and self-abasement, we are allowed to hope but it is to no avail: this is a story of determined mutual destruction. In amongst the chaos, a baby doll is placed at the front of the stage, facing the action. With this subtle but powerful gesture we are invited to take a different perspective – what does this all look like through her eyes? While the twentieth-century taboos surrounding the discussion of domestic abuse and sexual violence have begun to collapse, Bausch’s seminal piece remains as shocking, difficult and important as ever and, as we look on through the eyes of the baby doll, it is clear we still have much to learn.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” was performed at Sadler’s Wells from 13 – 15 February. Click here for more information about the production.