Pina Bausch’s Viktor starts with a wedding at the bottom of a grave, and tunnels down from there. Obsessed, compulsive, funny and grim, Bausch’s characters torment themselves and each other, then soar in an image of freedom and flight.
By 1986, when Viktor was created, Bausch was already established as one of the most influential choreographers of her generation. A dance-theatre artist who creates surreal and savage images, she blends speech and movement, the everyday and the bizarre. Viktor was developed out of a residency in Rome, which became the first of her “World Cities” series, large-scale works responding to locations from Hong Kong to Brazil.
Bausch’s Rome isn’t literal. Peter Pabst’s monumental set is a wall of earth, piled in high banks around the sides of the stage. A man with a shovel moves about on top, sending handfuls of earth spattering to the ground. If that suggests a grave, the show’s inhabitants refuse to admit or notice their mortality. The props include a circular saw (used on set), gymnasium rings, two live sheep and an auction house’s worth of furniture.
Chorus lines of dancers shuffle through a repeated step, winding across the stage and down into the audience. To a repeated folk tune, they rock and hurl their bodies through insistent patterns, a shared ritual they keep returning to. As ever, Bausch’s dancers are individual and personal, always ready to stop and argue with an audience or each other.
As often in Bausch, men torment women. In one painful scene, a group of men turn a woman into a fountain, pouring water into her mouth then washing themselves when she spits it out. Another woman wraps slices of beef around her bare feet, then puts on pointe shoes and floats romantically about the stage to Tchaikovsky: ballet with shoes full of blood. Bausch’s fascinated poking at heterosexual gender roles is still unnerving.
Viktor is long – well over three hours – and sometimes gruelling, but its parade of images is utterly distinctive. Three waitresses could not be more bored by their work, or by their male customer; another lights up when she describes seeing “a juicy rat”.
The obsessions can be tragic. One dancer describes a population of birds who barely survive migration: thousands die mid-ocean, collapsing at the point where, before continental drift, their destination used to be. Yet the women of the company finally take flight. Dressed in floating evening gowns, feet daintily crossed, they grasp gymnasium rings and swing joyfully through the air. At last, for one moment, they get to be both feminine and free.
Until 11 February (sadlerswells.com)