Bon Voyage

Last night was momentous, not just within the world of experimental dance, but beyond. Pina Bausch’s legendary company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, debuted their first two international productions with new directors since their founder tragically died in 2009. Under the direction of Alan Lucien Øyen, we are ushered into a new era for the company, mourning the loss of Bausch but working to keep her methods, ethos and memory alive through dance.

It is a transformative piece, but there is a fly in the ointment that threatens to ruin…the…ointment? Coming in at almost three and a half hours (with an interval) in classic non-linear experimental dance, it is about an hour too long. Of course, you expect length from dance pieces, but in this case, it has a detrimental effect on the show (not to mention the audience). The first act finishes and the rapture felt within Sadler’s Wells reverberates. The second finishes and we are all truly exhausted. This show is emotionally draining and classically bleak for a Scandinavian director; so much of the beautiful moments are lost as the show keeps going for long past most people’s attention spans. This lack of editing speaks to a more problematic idea of the “importance of the work.” While this is a groundbreaking moment and should be given its due, you can have too much of a good thing.

But let’s talk about the good because there’s a lot. Øyen has interpreted Bausch’s style of work but managed to create something entirely new yet totally respectful. Øyen followed Bausch’s process of exploring verbally and it shows in this piece. Dark and hard, it manages to humorously explore loss, family, memory and death (so much death). Øyen’s ability to change pace, crafting beautiful moments with extreme drama and skill, is outstanding. The piece never lets you fully understand it, fracturing and shattering before you have a chance, pulling the rug out from under you and switching emotion from pain to laughter in an instant. With music that wells your insides and an interesting use of disembodied voice, such as walkie-talkies and telephones, this show delights. This is a masterpiece from start to (far distance) finish and Øyen and the company’s ability to infuse Bausch’s work with a new light is a testament to themselves and to her visionary viewpoint on art.

With a mix of seasoned veterans of the company (almost 30 years for some) and new dancers who never knew Bausch, they work together in harmony. Øyen provides a framework of aesthetic, a grand yet simplistic beauty, and the performers electrify that with their creative spirit and past. Looking at points like aliens, creatures from the deep and pieces of cut glass, the classic Bausch style movements are the pinnacle of experimental dance; do not expect the military precision of classical ballet. These moments are emotive expressions of memory and draw us in deep within the dancers. Everyone within the company performs to a level of skill almost inconceivable. But mentions must go to those who bring the heavily theatrical piece its added value, helping it depart from just being a dance piece. Nazareth Panadero’s comic timing is a constant joy and breaks the tension, reminding the audience of the absurdity of the “dream that had already been dreamt” that we are watching. Adding a complex layer to this already sedimentary work, Rainer Behr’s explosions of frantic movement are as shocking as they are engrossing. Finally, Andrey Berezin’s cold humour runs throughout the show, adding to the varied flavour of the piece.

Blending many different languages, characters, experiences, this surreal show is both brave and challenging, new and from the heart. At times looking like a 1950s advert for Marlboro, Øyen’s interpretation of Bausch’s oeuvre creates a piece that I count myself lucky to have witnessed. If you have the stamina Bon Voyage, Bob will show you a world of well-dressed absurdity and cracked humanity. This show promised that Bausch’s legacy is safe in the hands of the wonderful Tanztheater Wuppertal Company, and will continue to create ripples in the pool of the world.

Bon Voyage, Bob played at Sadler’s Wells until 25 February.