It’s been a few days now, but I still can’t stop thinking about Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal for Toronto’s Luminato Festival. I’d seen snippets of it in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous biopic, Pina, but never before in its entirety. At a whopping three hours, Bausch’s classic 1978 piece remains stunningly powerful and relevant.
From the beginning, the audience is riveted. A woman in a pink satin dress walks to the front of the stage, turns around, pulls her hair back, bares her teeth (eliciting a few giggles), hunches then straightens her back, checks her palms and heels. Other women repeat these gestures in unison, then the men in sharp suits follow suit. We in the audience become mirrors, witnesses to their ceremonious preening and posing before the search for an acceptable partner.
Set in a dance hall, with tango and boogie tunes in the background, Kontakthof pits men and women (of different ages, ethnicities and body types) against each other, poking fun at the games we play to find intimacy. The poignant and the painful share space with the absurd. When the men freeze like statues, the women run in to fill the spaces: her face between his outstretched hands, her arms around his curved torso. A couple discusses whether to have sushi or Italian on their first date as they, with everyone else, take sliding steps forward before running back to step forward again. A man chases a screaming woman with a toy mouse in his hand. A woman asks an audience member for change to ride a coin-operated horse. A blow-up doll in a pink dress is thrown up to the ceiling. Everyone sits down to watch a short documentary about ducks.
In one vignette, men are in chairs on the left side of the stage, women are writhing against the other wall, and the men dance-race to where the women are. The anticipation of contact is electric, but we also brace ourselves for the inevitable collisions. We know it isn’t all fun and games.
Here’s one fabulous moment in the battle between partners: A herd of men advance, calling out names of body parts, and the women retreat, showing the body parts mentioned: “Hand. Cheek. Back. Stomach. Knee. Shoulder. Foot.” Then it’s the women’s turn to charge, voices accusing, as the men extend hands, cheeks, backs, stomachs, knees, shoulders, feet. The back-and-forth act shifts from playful to nasty, a parody of couples fighting without the baggage of content — we focus on the gestures, how the body attacks and reacts, baits and recoils and repeats.
This is a dance of rituals, a theatre of movement and vocal patterns, with repetition as the main device. One woman says “Darling” probably around a hundred times, each taking on a different tone — pleading, screaming, sighing, accusing, flirting, wheedling, finally admitting defeat. We hope to find an answer with each “Darling,” but the accumulation only reveals the meaningless of it all, an inability to break free of destructive patterns.
A key section employing repetition has the dancers walking in a circle, performing the same movements: they scratch their ears, puff out air in forced sighs, look behind with knowing smiles, return their gaze front, rub their hands, hook thumbs on hips, flick imaginary crumbs or dust off their fingers. This section is repeated twice: the first time after a couple shyly undresses on opposite ends of the stage; the second time, after a disturbing section where the male dancers paw at one of the older women as if she was a rag doll.
As the dancers repeat their circular walk, their knowing smiles landing on the audience, it’s as if they’re sharing a secret: we are in on it. In this dance, there’s a line between intimacy and invasion, between isolation and communion. The genius of Pina Bausch’s choreography is in making us realize that this is a line we must retrace and re-explore, a dance we constantly experience in our own lives.
Now, is there any chance we could bring this amazing company back to perform the other pieces in their repertoire?