BWW Review: BLUEBEARD, Sadler's Wells
If every marriage is a duel, then those of Bluebeard are full-on battles. The trailblazing German choreographer Pina Bausch's Bluebeard takes us into a mental war zone where the serrated edges of conjugal life cut deep. Radiating Bausch's singular vision and stunning theatricality, the 1977 piece receives its UK premiere at Sadler's Wells in a haunting revival by her company Tanztheater Wuppertal.
In this early masterwork, Bausch not only draws on the folktale of the wife-killing Bluebeard, but responds to Béla Bartók's 1918 opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Indeed, her full title for the piece - Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók's Opera "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" - reveals a good deal about its central premise.
In an empty, windowed interior covered with dead leaves, Bluebeard and his new wife Judith are about to repeat a trajectory that's been charted many times before. Stationed in front of a tape recorder, Bluebeard listens to Bartók's opera, rewinding certain sections of the music and restaging in his mind all his blood-stained marriages - with the most recent one still running its course.
So an ensemble of 21 performers soon descends on the opening scene featuring the central duo of Christopher Tandy and Silvia Farias Heredia. And Rolf Barzik's scenography starts to resemble a haunted house: joining the past and the present, these ten couples invade the autumnal landscape with their ghostly recreations of Bluebeard's former relationships.
As their sculptural, psychologically accentuated movements enact cycles of abuse and intimacy, Bausch's choreography anatomizes and ritualizes a ruinous marriage in its many gradations. Bound up together are not only sex and violence, but also frenzy and stillness, tenderness and cruelty. The line between pain and pleasure nearly dissolves in the couples' blistering tugs of war.
The performers fling themselves against the walls with loaded abandon, scale them in uncanny postures, and crawl by them lifelessly. Repetition emerges as a modality of both desire and violence, patterning Bluebeard's actions and recollections with numbing force.
This amalgam of Bacchic energy and Beckettian retrospection is never less than interesting. Even as the narrative thread is sometimes obscured, the choreography keeps boasting its visceral power, composing tableaus that burn themselves in the mind. There are haunting moments when Bluebeard's victims are heaped upon one another, and when the women - hypnotically furious - slap him with their hair.
There also comes a point when men strip down to their underpants and form a self-indulgent line-up, full of machismo. They thrust their demanding, overbearing egos upon their partners, eliciting alternations of rage, obstinacy, and deference.
But it would be wrong to suggest that it's all doom and gloom in this graveyard of ex-wives: joy and laughter, too, find their place in Bausch's unflinching dissection of gender dynamics.
Pina Bausch is a mighty name for a number of reasons, but even a few scenes from Bluebeard would be enough to intimate them all at once. This blistering revival brims over with stellar performances and unforgettable tensions. It would be criminal to miss it.
Photo credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele