After 30 years, 1980 - A Piece by Pina Bausch, by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, returns to Sadler’s Wells. A hugely ambitious project complete with a grass stage and an eclectic mix of music, the work divided opinion when it came to London in 1982, and no doubt would this time round.
There are some seriously big themes at play here, one of the most memorable being the notion of fame and narcissism. Much of it is reminiscent of reality TV - such as the competition contestant (fabulously played by Helena Pikon) who hoards the microphone to reel off an absurdly long list of hobbies. Or the one-upmanship on show as the dancers are invited to compare scars.
But nowhere is this theme more apparent than in the scene in which the audience are urged to choose a winner (of what we do not know) from a line-up, each one more desperate and with a sadder backstory than the last. It’s grotesquely exaggerated here, of course, involving an ill widow with two dead sons and a man “without relatives, without friends, with cancer”, but the sentiment isn’t a million miles from what’s on TV now. Except this was created in 1980, before reality TV as we know it existed.
Elsewhere, a woman obsessively talks about her earrings and shoes as if her – no, your – life depended on it. This ties in with a motif of gluttony evident throughout – be it material wealth or food. Perhaps not surprising given when this work was created.
This rampant consumerism is viewed alongside an acute sense of loneliness. A woman who sings Happy Birthday and blows out a candle by herself is overshadowed by another who boasts about her own fantastic party, until we realise that the guestlist consisted of “me, myself and I”. Later, a man walks out of his birthday celebrations (what is it with birthdays?) – a fact unnoticed by the guests, who go on to give a deadpan “hip hip hurrah” for a man who is no longer there.
Gender politics is never far from the surface, as befits a choreographer who was one of very few females in her field. We see it from the start – a conga line of dancers drawing attention to their hips and chests, throwing flirty glances at the audience. We see it again in the line-up of female dancers who are repeatedly ordered to turn around, perform sautÃ©s, get splashed with water.
At its best, 1980 is like a Python-meets-Lynch-meets-DalÃ sketch show, in turn hilarious, surreal, mundane and heart-breaking. There are magic tricks, children’s games, tea served by the artistic director (and dancer) himself, Lutz FÃ¶rster.
But as with any show formed from a series of episodes, there are parts that don’t quite deliver. The sequence in which Mechthild GroÃŸmann does a sort of stand-up routine by continuously shouting “fantastic”, where the laughs seem to derive from her low voice, left me cold. And it must be said that there are a number of places devoid of humour or melancholy or any of the emotions that the best parts of 1980 evoke.
Certainly, if you were expecting to see dance in the traditional “people performing choreographed routine to music” sense, you would be very confused. Indeed, half the people sitting in my row did not return after the interval. But the sheer amount of ideas here means something is bound to strike a chord, to resonate. Each of the performers has their own story – as in real life – and you get to see some of these in detail, yet of others very little, just glimpses of their private pain. One standout for me was Ruth Amarante’s childhood anecdote of getting dressed clumsily by her dad in her mother’s absence – yet we are not given the reason for this change.
The overriding feeling is one of mortality. There’s a particularly poignant scene in which the group gathers around Amarante to say goodbye. Some do it with blunt clarity, some with humour, some with elaborate, flowery language. But we’re not sure what she’s leaving from – a party, or life itself. It is hard to not watch this without being reminded of the death of Bausch’s partner and collaborator, Ralf Borzik, which partly led to the creation of 1980, or, indeed, the death of Bausch herself.
There are some serious decisions to be made about respecting Bausch’s legacy while creating a sustainable future for the company, which may involve new work. And what of the existing repertoire? Personally speaking, at over three and a half hours, 1980 could do with some editing. There will be those who disagree - certainly the many who gave a standing ovation on Saturday night. But that is what dance should do: generate debate, even divide opinion.
Indeed, despite its length, it’s hard not to be touched by 1980. At the end, we once again see Amarante facing the other dancers. Except, this time, no-one says a word. Sometimes, there really are no words that do justice to feeling.