It is ten years since Pina Bausch’s death, and though the artistic and executive management of the company she founded in 1973 is yet to find a stable direction (its fifth artistic director since 2009 took up post this year), the company’s near mythical status still pulls in crowds – of newcomers as well as devotees. As with all such choreographer-led companies, the central issue of its survival is how to preserve a singular heritage while remaining alive to and accepting of the inevitable: change. Direction thus becomes a balancing act between a weighty, well-known past and an unknown, perhaps fragile future.
The company’s first new commissions were short works in 2015, but its first full-length pieces came in 2018, commissioned by the then director Adolphe Binder: one from Norwegian Alan Lucien Øyen (a Bauschian 210-minute work), the other from Greek Dimitris Papaioannou, a mere 80 minutes.
Papaioannou, a longtime Bausch devotee with a background in visual arts as well as performance, opens Since she with a homage that every Bausch fan will recognise. A vast pile of foam slabs makes for a monumental, almost geological set. In front, there forms a line of chairs and a parade of performers, the women in gowns (funereal monochrome rather than Bausch’s usual iridescent finery) and the men in suits. The line, the chairs, the stately progress – it’s at such moments, so familiar from Bausch, that you notice the difference with Papaioannou: character. For if Bausch’s parades are casts of characters whom we get to know, Papaioannou’s procession – his background showing through, perhaps – emphasises image and mechanism. The line-up proceeds like a painstaking chain gang, picking up, passing and placing chairs to form its own stepping stones; but we don’t know who these people are.
Nor do we need to, at least not to start with: the animated imagery, and the joining of mechanical means and dreamlike effect are intriguing enough in themselves. Indeed the whole piece unfolds as a series of such scenes, distinct, overlapping or simultaneous, set variously to silence, to distant sounds, to music ranging from Bach and Prokofiev to Tom Waits.
A woman lies prone as her hair is spread out to form a sheer surface, onto which a man places a crown of glasses that he fills with water. He drags her slowly, and the hair pulls the glasses together, but they don’t spill. Hair features elsewhere, too: one woman sports an aura of hair, pierced by sticks that spread out like the rays of the sun. Another is held by her hair as her neck nestles in the crotch of a naked man; it looks like a medusa’s severed head, with eyes still blinking.
There are many moments where we see such hybrid or mythical figures. The ink-black dress of a woman in a ram’s head mask is smeared by searching fingers, revealing luxurious gold beneath. A naked man with cowbells dangling between his legs and poles extending his arms into giraffe-length forelimbs, casts about the stage, his bells clanging mournfully. A woman holds a stiff plank for a skirt, beneath which ripple a multitude of legs; a strange mix of mermaid and lobster.
The surreal images keep coming. A couple almost pierce each other with pliant sticks that bend between their bodies as they move together, pinging off as they finally embrace. Joining a cookery class, a man contributes a phallic sausage that squirts into a bowl, into which a woman lays what might be an egg – or a poop. Long tubes form rollers that the performers scoot across on upended tables. Towards the end, one man performs a kind of reversal of that opening chain gang, stacking the chairs ever more precariously into a pile on his own shoulders.
Since she is as strange and as matter-of-fact as a child’s game of make-believe, an unpredictable shuffle of images and symbols, as intriguing and arcane as tarot cards. What it lacks is a sense of pacing: a trajectory, a dynamic to its phrasing. Perhaps that too comes from Papaioannou’s visual arts background: the imagery is finely drawn and material consummately crafted, but time and character are sketchy.