Kontakthof @ Barbican Theatre, London

The great German choreographer and director Pina Bausch, who died last year, pioneered a new form of dance theatre with her Tanztheater Wuppertal company over the last four decades.

Though she initially faced opposition from pure dance critics who considered her work too loosely choreographed, she won people over with a uniquely theatrical mixture of movement, speech and music that showed a richly detailed understanding of human relationships.

None of Bauschs works demonstrates the broad appeal of her warm humanity more than her much-loved Kontakthof (literally place of contact).
Originally staged in 1978 for her general company, it was re-worked in 2000 With Ladies and Gentlemen over 65 and again in 2008 With Teenagers over 14, using local amateur performers, old and young respectively, both now revived at the Barbican.

The scenario is simple: in a faded municipal dance hall, to the accompaniment of scratchy old-style tunes, about a dozen women and a dozen men interact in a succession of short scenes covering a wide range of human feelings, including desire, vanity, loneliness, grief, cruelty and compassion. It all adds up to a moving exploration of how much we are mutually dependent for our emotional well-being.

The show begins with individuals walking downstage and looking out into the audience, while performing similar movements with their arms and hands, as if opening themselves up to our inspection with the older cast there is a real sense of lives having been lived, with every line on the face telling a story. The age of the performers adds an extra layer of vulnerability, even pathos, to a piece in which sexuality is key, as both women and men continue to look for a compatible partner. The romantic music, including waltzes, tangos and 1930s German songs, sometimes acts as an ironic counterpoint to the awkward couplings on stage.

The mood of sensuality can quickly turn into a battle of the sexes, as caresses become blows, and flirting changes to fighting. There is a brilliant sequence where men pick up the chairs in which they are seated and move towards the women standing by a wall, as both sexes gesticulate wildly at each other to the accompaniment of a chaotic jazz score, underlying an ambivalent erotic tension, which is neatly reversed in a later scene. In another section, couples take it turns to hurt or humiliate each other, as the rest applaud but no one wants to be alone.

There are disturbing moments, such as when one woman apparently sunk in depression is surrounded by all the men who, one after the other, proceed to prod her with increasing vigour, as if trying to shake her out of her lethargy. And when a woman sobs uncontrollably in grief, everyone leaves the room in disgust, though eventually another woman goes to console her. There is a strong feeling that these older people do not want the dance of life to be interrupted by reminders of mortality, so that if someone suddenly falls down inert they are ignored the show goes on.

But there is much humour too, from bitchy gossiping about each others appearance to a man chasing a woman with a dead mouse: it seems some people never grow up. Another time, a woman repeatedly asks members of the audience for coins to operate a mechanical rocking horse, which it turns out is not plugged in, while later the whole cast turns its back on the audience to watch an ecological film about ducks mating and regenerating. Near the end everyone sits at the front of the stage to share, one by one, a funny anecdote about a romantic fling in their past.

Although all the men wear dark suits and ties, while the women are all dressed in old-fashioned evening gowns, and though a few people take the lead, what comes across strongly is the individuality of each performer, each of whom is given a distinctive solo sequence. What the characters do may sometimes be selfish or absurd, but with minute observation and natural sympathy Bausch celebrates the beauty of imperfection in all of us.

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