When Pina Bausch and her performers created …como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si si… (Like Moss on a Stone) in 2009, no one knew it was to be Bausch’s last work. She died just two weeks after its premiere, and her shocked dancers resolutely pulled together to keep the company going and the repertory alive. Since then, London has been privileged to see many of Bausch’s works, especially during the mammoth “World Cities” season in 2012. Like the other pieces in that late cycle of her work, …como el musguito… was made through a residency in a particular country (in this case Chile), and created from the experience.
…como el musguito has Bausch’s distinctive signature all over it. The women wear sumptuous gowns (by regular costumier – or should that be couturier? – Marion Cito), the men are in monochrome suits. The piece unfolds as a collage of cameos circling themes of folly, absurdity, desire and disparate sexual dynamics, and if it takes its time to meander through them it accelerates towards the end with a recap of some of the highlights.
Yet if the look is familiar, the feel is strange, most noticeably in the relations between men and women. Out with mutual incomprehension and competitive powerplay; in with – it’s hard to believe – gallantry. Typical is a scene where Fernando Suels Mendoza offers effusive compliments to each passing woman, which the women simply accept – not because they believe him, but because if compliments are to be had, they might as well enjoy them. Elsewhere, gentlemanly Damiano Ottavio Bigi vacates his chair for a gracious lady, and Anna Wehsarg playfully tosses her hand in the air, delighted that Mendoza keeps catching it to cover it courteous kisses. Couples walk arm in arm, and a woman dancing a rumba explains that she is living for the moment. It’s remarkably convivial.
But not superficial. There’s a mood, an attitude to the work – to the women in particular – that suggests an appreciation of beauty and an acceptance of simple pleasures: the feel of a frock, the flow of one’s hair. In many solos, the women seem to dance for no one but themselves, luxuriating in their own limbs. When the performers form human chains, they’re not the arbitrary, ship-of-fools clusters of earlier Bausch but little plaits of togetherness. The music – easy on the ear folk melodies, popular songs and loungy jazz – is mostly gentle, often tinged with melancholy.
Such lack of conflict sometimes makes the material feel underpowered, and it’s certainly a huge contrast to the angst, desperation and futility that marked her earlier works, and indeed made her name. Yet this also sensitises us to more elusive dramas: men fleeing like fugitives; a sudden onrush of windblown figures; whistles and claps echoing like unanswered cries. Above all, there’s a sense of the precariousness of life and of beauty. The unusually muted set (by regular designer Peter Pabst) is a floor ingeniously fissured with cracks that almost imperceptibly widen and close again: unstable tectonics underpinning the action.
With hindsight, it’s hard not to read those often unnoticed cracks as harbingers of fate or departure – just as it’s hard not to miss, in the gorgeous dancing and flowing locks of this now largely youthful company, the sardonic grit and bite that the older dancers seemed to bring to almost any role. But time moves in one direction only; from May this year, the company will be led by Adolphe Binder – experienced, eclectic and currently director of the Swedish Göteborg Opera Dance Company), and the first director to arrive from outside Bausch’s company. If Como el musguito feels like a transition piece – Bausch, but not quite as we know it – then seven years on, it is probably time for the company to transition too.
Elsewhere in London, it’s good to see several theatre venues extending their programming to dance. Wilton’s Music Hall – nineteenth-century, marvellously gothic, and in the heart of Jack the Ripper territory – forms the perfect stage for choreographer Mark Bruce (son of the well known Christopher Bruce, but with a style that’s all his own). The Odyssey may lack the bite of last year’s Dracula, but it too offers plenty of dark fantasy and surreal cinematic pleasure as Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus lurch through fly-by scenes that pitch them against gods, monsters, and each other.
The music veers wildly from Mozart to reverb-guitar and, most bizarrely, Frank Sinatra, for an inexplicable Cyclops-as-Santa-Claus scene – and without basic knowledge of the myths, you might end up befuddled by what is going on, and why. Yet the dancers – who are skilled technicians as well as charismatic performers – conspire with the brooding atmosphere and bravado showmanship to grip you not by the head or the heart, but by the gut.