Disconcerting, both humourous and visceral, Kontakthof performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal continues to shock. Created by the late Pina Bausch, dance icon, in 1978, it must have been doubly shocking at that time, breaking both the conventions of dance and revealing the male/female power play beneath conventional respectability. Although her techniques bringing theatre into dance, speech, addressing the audience and performers of all shapes and sizes are now standard in the contemporary dance world and have less shock value, the subject matter continues to have devastating power.
This show gets under your skin
Bausch cast older individuals from the locality, not trained dancers and later, used teenagers, both adding extra aspects. In particular, the older cast with their characterful faces brought an individuality which is lacking in the new cast of more middle-aged performers. However, this cast, continuing Bausch’s tradition, still enact an authentic expressivity by bringing their personal experiences to their performance.
Set in a dreary post-war dance hall with chairs on three sides the company sit waiting to perform. The women wear stunningly seductive evening dresses with bright colours and satiny sheen, the men in anonymous almost identical suit and ties. Saccharine jazz music and tango from the 20s and 30s (including the Harry Lyme theme) lull us into a false sense of well-being.
A woman walks to the front and examines her teeth, opening her mouth in a grimace, then pulls in her stomach, last minute checks, as if we the audience are a mirror in a ladies’ room. It is clear from the beginning that the audience are complicit as we recognise ourselves in these tiny, mundane actions.
This is a theatre of gestures and steps rather than dance moves, structured around circles and straight lines broken by random incidents in ritualistic repetition. It does not progress in a ‘narrative’ but rather in a set of contrasts between unexpected silliness (a woman chirping like a peewit) and increasing horror. Nasty interchanges between possibly long married couples - slaps, pinches, even one woman putting her finger up her partner’s nostril, grow steadily nastier. There’s a clever set piece where the couples face each other at a distance on the chairs either side, the woman moving in wildly, the men’s arms waving frantically. As the men pull their chairs nearer until they meet the women we understand it is their actions which are causing the women’s distress.
Finally, longing, desire and loneliness become frenzies and we are in a madhouse, with a woman’s hysterical laughter turning into screaming, abject men become predatory, chasing women around the stage culminating in a horrific suggestion of a gang rape when all the men crowd round one woman who remains impassive as they paw her more and more aggressively.
The silliness and humour are welcome reliefs, in particular a film show of ducks (typically random) with an old-fashioned voice-over. Two men scat singing was delightful but there is little joy in this piece. Unfortunately this cycle of silliness, nastiness, silliness, nastiness becomes predictable and tiresome. The first act felt far too long by at least 20, even 30 minutes.
Now PIna Bausch has achieved iconic status, it is perhaps time that the company became more critical of the work and dare to perhaps edit the over-long sections. It did not warrant the three hours, a Shakespearean length. That said, the second act redeemed itself. Each time the breakouts return to the identical gestures and ordered striding in circles or lines. Anyone, usually a woman, who collapses is left ignored on the floor. Only at the end do the couples waltz, drooping with fatigue after the maelstrom of emotion throughout the show. The political subtext of behaviour in a totalitarian society becomes clear, where everyone must conform. This show gets under your skin and we are left with a sombre reminder of its continued relevance to today.