The late choreographer Pina Bausch, who passed away in 2009, was a true iconoclast of dance, reshaping and restructuring its very landscape. Her controversial, forward-thinking ouevre sometimes caused disgust, walkouts and audiences hurling missiles.
So, can one of her final works, Sweet Mambo, still provoke to that degree in 2014 ? Of course not. This is after all, the Edinburgh International Festival, where audiences seem more receptive to esoteric works, and it is one of her more playful pieces yet not entirely without moments which push buttons. It is as a satire that the audience can fully embrace it; Bausch sets up a high-society, chocolate box world in the first half only to claw at, and ultimately topple, it over in the second. Peter Pabst’s stunning set design features billowing, sumptuous curtains which almost ‘drown’ the dancers like waves, acting as something both threatening and divine.
Spider woman Nazareth Panadero appears to puncture scenes of fledgling romance, with her nicotine cackle and demented glare. It is apposite that Bausch’s work appeared in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her, as high camp and melodrama often collide always knowing and outre. Bausch’s choreography sizzles with an erotic charge from Regina Advento’s Latininflected shimmies and Aida Vaineri’s cat padding on a fur coat, to a forlorn fragmentary ensemble piece soundtracked by Hope Sandoval’s dolorous twanging country noir. Portishead’s music gets crawling dancers, possibly sneaking off to some BDSM retreat in masks and gloves.
Film noir and Expressionism influence the piece too, with The Blue Fox , a German film from 1938 screened behind the ensemble: although a 1938 comedy, stylistically it is dressed in shadows. But it’s not all dark. Sexually suggestive humour (the kiss chases between the men and women are very much evocative of saucy romps) are explored and there is a naughty orgasm scene in a chair, played very much for laughs.
But it is the visibility of the older woman that most intrigues Bausch famously used dancers of all ages, shapes and sizes. The men dressed in black, often seem like props, taciturn, always trying to one-up the women, yet the women prevail. Violence and cruelty simmers, as evinced by an uncomfortable pas de deux between Julie Ann Stanzak and Daphnis Kokkinos, in which Stanzak’s long glossy hair is ruffled then pulled by Kokkinos, over and over like a nightmare, before he pulls at her pink evening gown, leading her around like a show pony. She slaps him, and lust and evil overlap in ambiguity.
The statuesque Julie Shanahan gets the most memorable moments, whether pouring buckets of water over herself in a candy pink evening gown as she flexes on the ground, or being pulled back by male dancers Andrey Berezin and Michael Strecker. It is as though the men are the patriarchy, yet she is undefeated. The old adage of ”you cannot keep a good woman down” seems to dominate:a fitting epitaph to the indomitable spirit of Pina Bausch, trailblazing to the last minute. Bold, beautiful and a little bonkers.