he battle of the sexes is fraught at the best of times – and no one had a keener sense of its absurdities and tragedies than Pina Bausch. Her work, from the seminal Café Müller to the mesmeric The Rite of Spring, is packed with lost souls desperate for human connection, yet who often find themselves unable to bridge the divide. “I’m not interested in how people move, but what moves them,” the choreographer famously said. Instead of a showcase of physical virtuosity, her dance-theatre pieces are a snapshot of human desires, played out in all their messy glory. Hope, fear, disappointment, elation – nothing is shied away from.
Kontakthof (rough translation: courtyard of contact) is a case in point. Created in 1978 – but with its theme of social isolation given a new resonance in the aftermath of the pandemic – it’s set in a drab town hall where 22 dancers, in various dark suits, bright ballgowns and sharp stilettos, meet to torment and flirt with each other against a soundtrack of 1930s pop songs.
Love in this world is elusive and conducted on a war footing, with men and women squaring up on opposite sides – often quite literally, by barking orders across the stage or eyeing each other suspiciously at a distance. Everything is permissible in pursuit of a mate, and yet there do not appear to be any winners; amid the myriad dating games, there are few instances of real intimacy. Sex is almost always accompanied by bursts of violence – kisses morph into bites and slaps with uncomfortable regularity. No wonder then that the women are soon queuing to get their thrills on a vintage mechanical horse instead – once they’ve blagged the small change from the front row first, that is.
Does it sound rather joyless? The curious thing is, it’s not. Bausch is particularly good at picking out those small details of human fragility that are also very funny – the anxious preening in front of a mirror, the adjustment of a bra strap or the subtle hitching of a knicker line. There are gentle slapstick elements – a chat about fish’n’chips vs curry, a film about ducks and skits involving a toy mouse – that act as the perfect counterpoint to some of the darker moments.
The main issue – as with many Bausch creations – is it’s much too long. The show clocks in at a daunting three hours, and even the briefest blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interval breaks much of the mood. Performing Kontakthof is a heady challenge for this multi-talented troupe of distinct performers – it shouldn’t be an endurance test for the audience, too.
Sadler’s Wells, to February 6, sadlerswells.com