Drawn from Greek myth it tells the story of Iphigenie, a priestess in exile. The action begins with a dream, which Iphigenie takes to mean that her brother Orestes is dead. Then the Scythians demand the sacrifice of two young shipwrecked Greeks. These men turn out to be Orestes and his friend Pylades, though Iphigenie has yet to discover this.
Ruth Amarante's Iphigenie is tormented by what she is forced to do, as are her fellow priestesses – in a manner reminiscent of the Willis of Giselle; despite seeming independent and strong-willed, these women are never quite at peace with themselves. They provide a marked contrast with Orestes and Pylades, who cling onto one another, helpless.
Bausch's 'dance-opera' has the dancers on stage accompanied not just by an orchestra but also by a group of singers – one for each character, as well as a chorus. While this places Iphigenie auf Tauris apart from Bausch's later work, it is at times problematic. The weight of the narrative falls on the singers and results in some rather literal dance sequences.
But the piece is undeniably special. This is particularly true for the corps scenes, where Iphigenie is joined by her priestesses, their small movements – a shuffle of feet, a turn of head – against a largely empty stage feel dream-like but with menacing undertones. The bath tub, half-hidden by draped fabric, looks chilling even before you see what it is used for. The shapes that the priestesses form are mesmerising like sculptures, their faces full of sadness for their friend in mourning.
The final act is undoubtedly the high point. While the emotional and dramatic climax is not so confidently handled, Bausch's use of silence for much of the scene is inspired. The part where the priestesses prepare a sacrificial ceremony for Orestes is truly disturbing – only to be somewhat undermined by an ending which felt strangely out of place with a sudden change in mood and an array of Colgate smiles.
This mix of opera and modern dance still feels fresh and Bausch was clearly way ahead of her time. The piece dates back to a mere year after the still-young Bausch took over the artistic directorship of Tanztheater Wuppertal. She had no interest in making a pretty dance on a pretty stage; you may love Iphigenie auf Tauris for its drama or hate it for what can feel like melodrama, but it's hard to be indifferent to piece that grips you from beginning to end.