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'Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s "Duke Bluebeard’s Castle&q

A hush comes over the audience at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. On stage, a suit-clad man reaches for a tape recorder. A woman in a lurid pink dress writhes on her back, hands outstretched. The floor is swallowed by hundreds of dead leaves. This is how the UK premiere of Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Bluebeard, While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók´s opera "Duke Bluebeard’s Castle" begins, and this is how it impacts the viewer - it stuns, shocks, and ultimately, completely takes your breath away.

Bausch’s choreography is loosely based on the libretto Bluebeard’s Castle. Béla Bartók's operetta structure informs that of the performance: where the male voice booms, male dancers take centre stage; where the female voice joins, male and female dancers converge, performing moves that often require the assistance of one another. Bluebeard’s Castle consists of only two voices - that of the inquisitive Judith and the murderous Bluebeard - Judith is the latter's new wife, and her curiosity is what opens the locked doors of his castle, ultimately leading to her discovery of his murdered wives. Each male dancer is representative of Bluebeard, and each female dancer, Judith - repeating the cycles of love and abuse so closely associated with the work’s eponym.

Photo credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele

The Bausch technique frequently makes reference to classical ballet, combining this with contemporary expressionist movements. Bluebeard is chained to his memories, replaying and rewinding the tape as he struggles to turn back time. The dancer’s movements follow suit: they are repetitive...and aggressive. They are dragged across the floor, piled on chairs, and slammed against walls. They slap, push and even kick other dancers - a show of the violence and force Bluebeard exerts over his wives. Attention to the body is also central to the performance. Men strip down to their underwear, harshly flexing and contorting their muscles. Women disrobe to reveal plain slips, and often take off and put on their jewel-toned dresses. The dancers’ naked bodies are exposed and unguarded, highlighting Judith and Bluebeard's shared vulnerability. They groan, moan, scream and breathe in ragged gasps. A male dancer howls, 'Ich liebe dich!', then buries his head in a pillow. The phrase is a poignant summation of the tension in the relationship. Pain, violence, love and lust shine through in their most raw and animalistic form through the performance’s use of sound.

Photo credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele

Bluebeard is significant not only to Bausch’s career but also to the history of dance. It was the progenitor of Tanztheater, German for "dance theatre". The style is not simply an amalgamation of the two elements; rather, it takes an expressionist approach in order to evoke strong feelings from the audience. Tanztheater does not tell stories conventionally - it relies on recalling memories, experiences and transporting the audience to a different world. Tanztheater forges a connection between the dancers' passion and the audience's innermost emotions, resulting in something truly profound.

Pina Bausch’s Bluebeard showcases expressionist technique, surrealism and a nuanced understanding of gendered violence, all in one evocative performance. The messy paths of the leaves on the stage floor serve as a haunting, yet powerful final image, reminding us of the sheer force of love, and the abomination it becomes in the face of violence.

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