Old people are funny, in a way similar to children being funny, they’re like these oddities not quite human – kids because they haven’t learned how one must behave in society and old people because they have and no longer give a fuck. Yay. Both offer us, unfortunate adults in the in-between years, relief. I think. Maybe it’s just me, but seeing an old lady in evening dress laughing and shaking her head so fast you think it might fall off then stopping abruptly to sit on the floor gives me the same kind of delight that I get from seeing children freak out in some public space. It’s as though they are outside the rules of society.
But, of course, the stage is not just any old public space and Pina Bausch’s choreography is not just old people getting hysterical, but a bloody long composition of images made three-dimensional. By this I mean that the piece is very long, two hours forty-five minutes maybe and I suppose I shouldn’t expect any less from the Queen of Tanztheater, but then the interval weakened this statement. Yes sure people on stage and off need to pee, smoke and scratch their itches, but the theatre is supposed to be magical, right? and the interval really affected the way I saw the second part. I also mean that I experienced the whole thing as composed almost to the point of deadening.
A lot of the time I felt as though I was watching the cogs in Bausch’s mind organising, re-organising and being amused rather than being able to really see the performers and empathise with them. This is not to say that the images were not sometimes beautiful or poignant, they were – the whole cast, which was over twenty performers, in a huddle wearing serious expressions performing a simple step sequence in time to the music and travelling torwards the audience in a way that looked almost menacing was one of the many images I really liked. But, it was all organised so perfectly: the huddle is arranged so that the dark of the gentlemen’s suits brings out the colours of the ladies’ dresses and the two ladies in red patent heels’ feet stand out. Everything is placed just a little too carefully, disrupting the humanity of the thing; nothing is raw here, even as the cast seated in a long line downstage, recount tales of old or lost loves, even as the lady in the pink dress breaks out and runs up against the wall, hair flying and arms flailing.
Bausch draws attention to the frailty of old age, she makes jokes about the nearness of death but also shows the life, vigour and desire still left. One lady, the one in the purple dress, repeatedly goes into the audience to ask for coins to put into the mechanical horse that sits downstage right for most of the show, she hoists her leg over the saddle, adjusts her dress, puts in her coins and rides the horse. Her straight spine ripples as the horse rocks her back and forth in a slightly jerky motion. Could she be thinking about the last time she had sex?
I enjoyed this piece, I like a song and dance and old men tapping their feet and scatting and thick German accents, but I do wonder how much was because I don’t get to look at old people everyday, their bodies, how they move, how they run and dance, it is fascinating to see performers with so much history in their bodies. I saw the cast of teenagers over-14 also, and this didn’t make the same kind of sense; I am not so interested in a 16 year old in lipstick standing alone centre-stage stroking the skin of her face, turning so I can see her body the different angles – I see more of those bodies than I’d like in the street everyday. Looking at someone so young I didn’t really think about what stories she might have had to tell, you don’t see the past but the future. With this cast there were some entertaining moments, but I wonder if it would have been better with a cast of ten to thirteen year olds…perhaps not practical or possible for a piece near three hours long.
You can tell the piece is an old one; in 1978 it must’ve been a scream. Then I think about this being what came before so much of what I see and take for granted today. Six hours in the theatre I don’t regret.
Kontakthof by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, 1-4 April 2010 Barbican Theatre