One of the highlights of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad was a month-long season of works by the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Bausch, who began choreographing in the 1970s, is a figure of colossal importance in modern dance, and though she died suddenly in 2009 her company has been fiercely committed to keeping her repertory alive. The London season encompassed ten of Bausch’s “world cities” works – pieces created through residencies in various far-flung locations such as Hong Kong, Rome, Los Angeles, Istanbul or Santiago.
Bamboo Blues is her Kolkata piece, created in 2007. As with the others, it is not a portrait of the city in which it was made; rather, it gives glimpses of the locality refracted through Bausch’s characteristic look – fabulous frocks and formal suits, here supplemented by sari- and lungi-length swathes of cloth – and her characteristic feel, with its focus on archetypes and inner lives, its attention always more directly on the performers than on the place. Bausch’s works often seem like Rorschach patterns into which you project your own meanings, or sundry icons scattered like tarot cards for you to divine significance from – and therefore produce wildly different reactions from audiences. So I might as lay my own cards on the table now: of the nine pieces that I have seen in the series (seven this time round, two from earlier viewings), I found Bamboo Blues the slightest.
No doubt, it is one of the most beautiful. Peter Pabst, Bausch’s regular designer, sets the first half against a backdrop of wafting gossamer curtains, and Marion Cito, Bausch’s regular costume designer, has excelled herself with the women’s gowns – sumptuous silken creations in saturated colours of fuchsia, poppy and marigold that, no matter how the dancers leap or spin, always drape into a beguiling pose. And whoever did the hair deserves a medal. Bausch has always enjoyed long hair on her women, for its look of femininity and the way it chases motion like an afterthought. In Bamboo Blues, hair is finessed to a level never before achieved, tresses caressed by breezes, fanning into glossy deltas or trailing in the air like swirls of gorgeousness. Now, it is true that haircare is a very big deal in India, with much effort expended on combing, conditioning and finishing – but here, with the curtains and the costumes, with the mildly exotic Indo-jazz that ripples through the piece like a balmy current, the overall effect is like an advert for luxury shampoo or an artistically airbrushed fashion shoot from Vogue. Everything is given a whiff of the cosmetic.
So what actually happens? The piece, as usual with Bausch, is a collage of snapshots and cameos. Stretches of fabric, steam, washing and ironing are recurrent features, whether the dancers unravel lengths of lungi or wrap themselves up in them. One man soaps himself in his wrap, like a street bather at a pipe; a woman hides behind translucent muslin as the air is sprayed with mist – you certainly get the feel of humidity, heat, and constant showering. A bearded man walks in a slow diagonal, balancing dry branches on his arms and shoulders like a saddhu bearing his own funeral kindling. People lie down to sleep on carts, there’s a bit of yogic contortionism (two women conjuring the illusion of a single, super-supple being), and a bevy of women, in all their finery, herding languorously together like peacock-hued, cud-chewing water buffalo – or bejewelled, betel-chewing hijras.
In the second half there are more specific references to local colour – a giant movie poster, a person sporting a Ganesh head, film of chhau dancers, a snapshot of a call centre. There is also some Indian dance, with Shanta Shivalingappa, performing kuchipudi – yet I found her far more arresting in Nefes (the Istanbul piece), where the kuchipudi was presented with complications and counterpoints that wrong-footed the viewer. In Bamboo Blues, Shivalingappa appears like a self-contained jewel, a feathersome presence whose hair follows her every move like an adoring fan.
There are moments of edginess – which only made me hanker for the Bausch that I love, the Bausch that unsettles and unmasks. The moment where a woman dreams of flying while doing the housework; where a panic-stricken woman is clamped to a man’s back like an abducted child clinging to her captor; where a woman (Bausch always channelled her fiercest feelings through women) races in circles and throws herself headlong into the air, to be caught – just – by the man who keeps racing after her. But such moments are few, and their edges are in any case smoothed away by the silken designs and music. Bamboo Blues is Bausch with conditioner: attractive, glossy, frizz-free.