Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Bluebeard. While listening to a Tape Recording of Bela Bartok’s Opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” is an intoxicating mix of a completely unique concept, powerful performances and a provocative subject. Although this work premiered in 1977, my first viewing is indelibly ingrained on my soul and it feels like I’ve waited a long time to see a piece so profound, so creative and thoroughly original.
I viewed this compelling and sometimes shocking exploration of the complex male and female relationship dynamic very much through the female lens, the female experience, while observing the man and his view. This work made me reflect, to question social norms and the performance of being a woman; the feminine dress, the desired long hair, the pretty, the passive, the passionate, the defiant, the obedient, the repressed and suppressed, for being a woman is a constant show, a balancing act of conformity, authenticity and a raging desire for equality.
But what of dance? Inside a bare apartment, impressively built almost 40 feet high with windows, doors and a floor covered in browned autumn leaves; a pulley system is strung across the ceiling that leads down to a man and a music player. The enormity of the set is almost bewildering in scale and foreboding in impact, as we find a woman dressed in pink, lying rigid on the ground with arms extended to the ceiling. The man presses play, and he comes to her, climbs on top and moves in some sort of fetishised way that is grotesque and true. Hitting a musical phase, the man rushes to stop and restart the music, to ensure his favoured backdrop to his ravishing that brutally pushes her across the stage.
Over and over this is played out. She is almost doll like, mechanical, but a willing participant. It’s a confronting start that pulses with tension; the apartment and dynamic feels like a confined hell that sees a line of men and women dressed in black, with heads bowed, hand in hand, ominously walk through the scene.
There’s constantly twisted layers added to this relationship that is exposed, raw. There is love, desire, but it is contorted. He sits on a chair, she tries to stroke his face, he pushes her to her knees over and over again until the message is so clear that it almost hurts. As the men and women reappear, the woman in pink runs and randomly pulls women from the line, almost desperate for Bluebeard’s attention to fall upon another prey, but also wanting to appease her man.
Every element in this piece is deliberately and deeply symbolic, from the woman’s pink dress that uncomfortably looks like at any moment it will fall from her bare shoulders and reveal her breasts; to the women’s turn of the century layered dresses that are already unzipped, they are at a ready as the women swirl their long luscious hair in an almost primal way as they are then stripped down to their slips.
Although the pure dance is minimal there’s so much movement to take in, with each scene compounding and confronting. There’s a moment when the women all retract to the apartment walls, legs straight, heads down, hair falling forward, either defiant or in hiding, the men pull them violently and they retreat loudly slamming back into the walls. It’s ferocious. There’s screaming, there’s running, there’s literally climbing the walls. There is too much to describe, and so much that must be seen in this dark portrayal of a dysfunctional and volatile relationship.
The role of the man comes to the fore as the morose line of men in black, become a parody of themslves and their masculinity, as they’re stripped down to multi-coloured velvet pants, striking posses with false smiles, muscles buldging in their own performance of what is means to be a man. The repetitiveness of the defunct, assigned male and female roles is played out in nightgowns and with pillows that have them screaming silently into the night in a room and roles from which noone seems able to escape. In the end, man and his wife are alone, there’s revenge and death as she drags his body through the rustling burnt leaves in an exhausting, repleative and viseral end to what is nothing short of a dance/opera/theatre/art house masterpiece.
Reviewed at Sadler’s Wells on 12 February 2020.