Desires rage and sexual tensions are let loose in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s sublimely smart and ever-relevant classic, Kontakthof, at Sadler’s Wells.
Content warning: this review refers to sexual assault and gendered violence.
No one needed a pandemic to reveal that love is, as a wise teacher once told me, blood on the dancefloor. Since the lifting of lockdown restrictions last year, this proverbial blood-letting has shown no end: trends in sexual attitudes, practises and relationships have rapidly shifted in preference of the frequently casual but nonetheless close-between-the-sheets kind of encounter. The status of the situationship has never been more popular or a more prominent position to find yourself in. Love is here, but it’s blurrier and bloodier than ever, and the dancefloor, no matter how well sprung and clean, will inevitably be stained by it.
First performed in 1978, Pina Bausch’s classic, Kontakthof, perfectly captures this para-pandemic, post-lockdown situation. Though no actual blood is shed – and it wouldn’t be unusual for some kind of effluvia of passion to spill on stage as past performances of Vollmond (Full Moon) have shown – Bausch’s world of courtship is as brutal as it is loaded with longing. Pre-empting the situationship phenomenon defining modern love today, Bausch’s men and women strut, stride, crawl, slide, gyrate, cry, connive and fight their way into undefined partnerships and complicated couplings, only to peel off into isolated singledom or the “safety” of the courting crowd once again. Love knows no limits and neither do Bausch’s elegantly attired figures, who beneath the chic silk gowns and crisp suits harbour an animalistic hunger, a volatile and ravenous capacity to kiss, bite and slap their way into intimate relations. Like our current dating scene, this is a realm where the ritualistic power-play of being seen, known, heard and ‘liked’ is just as important as the erotic fumbling it may or may not eventually climax in.
But Bausch does not give us the bloodied and violent breakdown – or build up – to these relation-/situation-ships immediately. She starts with what most first dates are known for: etiquette; the anxiety or excitement inducing preparations; the politesse of the first look, word and touch, before giddiness or tedium sets in. Women stride confidently forward from upstage and perform in a row the ritual of checking oneself in a mirror: exposed arms are held forward, palms placed up, hair pushed back, teeth checked, and the unappealing sag of a held-in stomach is revealed. The social scrutiny – akin to Berger’s double vision – internalised by the women is turned back on themselves, as, chorus-like, they re-examine and re-objectify their own bodies. This custom is not, however, confined to them alone. Standing shoulder to shoulder, in a similar line downstage, the suited men repeat the same actions; they replicate the same seemingly mundane but self-cauterising motions in a bid to appear more attractive to a prospective other – or simply themselves. Gender, Bausch confirms from the start, is both a monotonous and spectacular performance; one that both binds and frees in the most vicious and captivating displays.
Rows, columns, processions and rounds of this contrived and exaggerated posturing occur throughout Kontakthof. For all their ballroom dynamism and sexual synergy, these regroupings of synchronised ensemble work reinforce gender binaries, reiterate the oppressive ‘divide’ of the sexes, and reassemble and reaffirm the hegemonic heteronormative culture that Bausch’s figures strive, at times desperately, to challenge and resist throughout the entirety of the production. Within the first 20 minutes a woman breaks out of this formation, screaming and fainting on the floor. No one blinks, looks or dares to break the social compact of the dance, the expectation of conformity pulling the men and women further into the act of being just that: individuals playing their expected gender roles to an estranged and sometimes callous extreme. Stepping over the woman who has broken protocol, the figures return to their chairs upstage, an artful portrait of artless composure and compliance, unlike the rebellious hair-strewn form downstage. Prone and inert, the woman will eventually repeat her fainting fits and yelps at various, inopportune intervals, to no great avail.
Slowly men and women act up, act out, break up and break out, of this rigid wall of being. Alone, together, in twos and threes, individuals seek relief and release from the roles they’re expected to assume. A discordant jazz breaks through the 1930s German tango music when this reshuffling and unmastering of a studied way of existing and relating occurs. Figures dash around the stage, collide, climb chairs, even the wall, whisk their temporary partners into the air or onto the floor, as the mantle of gendered expectation starts to fall. At other instances, individuals cling to such roles. Short overlapping vignettes – the very situationships many millennials are finding themselves in today – demonstrate this retreat into sexual behaviours and gendered types. The lead woman, for example, performed to perfection by Canadian dancer Emma Barrowman, paces across the stage like a prowling leopard, sauntering across its centre whilst being watched by an opportunistic male. At every restless and heated turn of her heel he attempts to grab her, but she evades his touch, deliberately parading her femininity up and down, up and down the long length of the floor, until another vignette intercedes. She is burning for attention but resists attending to any other but her own demonstrable show of hot femininity. Earlier she breathes and cries orgiastically into a microphone to surrounding applause; at another moment, she folds on herself in abandon, sobbing uncontrollably over an irretrievable loss. Practising and embodying this kind of femininity, a traditional, albeit exaggerated trope of feminineness, is as exhausting to watch as it must be to perform. Yet it’s a vocabulary Barrowman’s woman knows; a choreography she has devised, not so much in pursuit of a mate, but some pronounced and socially recognisable, validated and consumable conception of herself. When she sighs, saunters, pouts and plays ‘the catch’, all applaud; but left in an inconsolable mess, crying into her nightdress, unravelling in every sense of the word, she’s alone, and the once adulatory crowd turn their backs, mock her to the audience, walk away unconcerned. Love, whether of one self or another, is also, in Bausch’s world, having a bloody good cry on the dancefloor.
Of course crying is always on the cusp of laughter in Bausch’s work, particularly in Kontakthof. What’s ironic about such laughter – what is painfully cruel and no doubt Bausch’s wry, sly, subtle attempt to catch us out – is that it’s often the small aggressions, the mounting hostilities, the spiteful slingshots and continued rivalries between the lovers that make us laugh out loud. If the tables were turned, we too would be sobbing grievously into our night dresses like Barrowman’s woman. Still, we recognise the tormenting, parading egos of those posing in picture-perfect coupledom. Like a behind-the-scenes Instagram photograph, the image is spliced, the tableau reverted, the couples’ smiles and contentment turn, as a (sado)masochistic sport of flicking, slapping, biting and pinching their counterparts – again to applause – is resumed. Such staged cruelty and humiliation evokes the chuckle and chortle of those who know when they – or their partners – have rubbed the other up the wrong way. But we know that a slap is not always a spank. When the violence takes on a more prominent and physically violating form, the laughter is cut short. Both audiences, on and offstage, no longer clap. The penultimate vignette, one where a woman is effectively molested by an all-male ensemble, fixes our attention, pinning us all to our seats. Doll-like in their arms, the woman, now a human version of the blow-up sex toy that has been pulled on and off stage throughout the show, hangs limp and looks vacant, numb to the assault on all parts of her body. The men ravage every part of her face, her chest, her arms, their obsessive curiosity and compulsive desire burrowing deeper into her, losing her body and sense of self to theirs. It is strangely, horrifically mesmerising; a sickening scene that silences laughter, extinguishes tears, precisely because of its horrible familiarity. The woman walks off, crumpled with despair, only for the conformal roundel of courtship to begin. This, implies Bausch, is the ultimate violence of so-called love, the victimising horror of desire, of longing gone wrong and sexual ritual haemorrhaging from the inside out. If love is blood on the dance floor, then Bausch’s Kontakthof shows us just how beautiful and brutal the actual dance is, whether performed in 1978 or 2022.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof is showing at Sadler’s Wells until 6 February. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Feature image of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch ensemble in Kontakthof is by Reiner Pfisterer, courtesy of Sadler’s Wells.