Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

Choreography Pina Bausch, music Béla Bartók, libretto Béla Balázs
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
Sadler’s Wells

Bluebeard, a piece by Pina Bausch Credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele
Christopher Tandy and Silvia Farias Heredias in Bluebeard, a piece by Pina Bausch Credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele
Bluebeard, a piece by Pina Bausch Credit: Klaus Dilger
Bluebeard, a piece by Pina Bausch Credit: Evangelos Rodoulis
Bluebeard, a piece by Pina Bausch Credit: Brinkbek
Bluebeard, a piece by Pina Bausch Credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele

Béla Bartók’s one-act opera, one-hour or so in length, becomes, inevitably, nearly two hours (short for her) in Pina Bausch’s hands: it’s all those endless repetitions. We get it; we get it… nothing has really changed since Adam and Eve. It is always the battle of the sexes under Pina’s probing gaze. What else is there? “There is only life and us.”

The 1977 Blaubart / Beim Anhören einer Tonbandaufnahme von Béla Bartóks Oper Herzog Blaubarts Burg, Stück von Pina Bausch, to give it its full original name, came after her Rite of Spring but before Café Müller and Kontakthof. And it holds elements of all three, if for me it’s not quite in their league or the tremendous works that came later—I’m thinking of the World Cities 2012 series and their ilk.

Apparently, in 1977, there were walkouts, but Pina always held firm: "it is almost unimportant whether a work finds an understanding audience. One has to do it because one believes that it is the right thing to do. We are not only here to please, we cannot help challenging the spectator." Challenge she does, one’s patience, with a piece that overstates what men and women do to each other in the name of love—and curiosity. If Bluebeard is about anything, it is about possessiveness.

Physically, the dancers are put through it: dragged incessantly by legs like rag dolls, swung wrapped in sheets, there’s endless running round the deep stage, climbing up, and crashing against, the walls. Abuse and self-abuse in the name of love… falling down and getting up again for more… Bluebeard has Judith over his knee for a spanking. She slaps him.

In a shuttered room—no furniture, traces of a stove—that was once grand, now dead leaves blow. Feels like a film set—I think of Calderón’s baroque allegory Life is a Dream and Sartre’s existential Huis Clos. Judith wants to open the doors, bring light into his dark castle; Bluebeard wants it cloistered, under his control, its darkness preserved. He watches at a keyhole.

Love comes at a price. She doesn’t find the fragrant garden, just decay and sadomasochistic games. Imprisoned by our behaviour, we are destined to repeat it. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana). And repeat it they do ad absurdum and ad nauseum: in an airless chamber women and men torture each other in constant conflict and proud posturing. It’s all about the ego—ich, ich, ich, me, me, me, they shout.

Women shove their reproductive organs (I think of Gustave Courbet's provocative The Origin of the World) in men’s faces, lash men with their hair—hair a big deal in Pina’s works—caress them, but they get a bashing in return. Men sit on them till they fall in dead faint, Bluebeard demands fellatio from Judith, her head pushed down again and again. Yet, there is love of sorts: the whole masochistic La Ronde comedy of it.

Judith lies on the ground, arms raised ready for Bluebeard, always there for his persistent physical demands. He stops, runs to the tape (he who controls the tape recorder, controls the narrative?), replays a section, runs back to her arms and more grinding, more perfunctory pleasuring, though it doesn't look much like pleasure. Woman as whore and pimp, not as the Madonna.

Women parade in flouncy long dresses and skimpy slips; Bluebeard layers dress on dress on Judith—another trophy wife. A tiny mascot doll observes it all, this obsessive replaying of segments of Bartók’s opera (sung in German—I long for surtitles) on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the sad parading of hangdog men and women, ghosts from the past, former conquests, off to purgatory. But this is purgatory. Or the road to extermination...

Hair obscures women’s faces—surrealism in play or a hiding place? Men stand in Charles Atlas poses—though some I fear would have sand kicked in their faces—as women massage their backs. On and on it goes, frantic, frenetic, gruelling: siren women simper, mutter, shout, groan and weep in the face of man the hunter and his macho male vanity… cliché on cliché to the point of banality. Is the hysterical female laughter madness or fake joy?

Never before performed in the UK, Bluebeard has to be seen if only to add another jigsaw piece to Pina’s collected works. The production is a sell-out with visitors from all over, such is her fan base—I include myself in that. Not seen for some twenty-five years—the Bartók estate removed performing rights in 1994—Bluebeard is only now restored to her repertoire thanks to being finally out of copyright.

The late Pina Bausch’s back catalogue is being maintained by loyal former dancers and creatives who knew her and her working methods well. Passing their experiences on can’t always be easy, especially, as Héléna Pikon who performed in Bluebeard in 1978 says, in an understatement, “life was different then”. In a restaging led by Pikon and Barbara Kaufmann, original cast member Jan Minarik and Beatrice Libonati, mankind’s peccadillos are faced full-on.

Pina’s piercing lens and interrogatory technique demanded and drew a lot from her company of seasoned performers, emotionally as well as physically. It could be quite punishing. I miss the old familiar personalities. I miss the long-established rapport. There is youthful pogoing energy in the new group of dancers, in the amplifying chorus of eleven young couples, but not the depth yet—I only catch it in the two leads, Christopher Tandy and Silvia Farias Heredias. Hell really is other people. Play and rewind…

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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