Pina Bausch (1940-2009)
Ahnen (1987)
The Guardian - Ahnen review – cactuses, cartoon fights and choreography on speed
Sadler’s Wells, London
Tanztheater Wuppertal’s dancers negotiate a prickly set in Pina Bausch’s cruel but tender comedy

Characters in the work of Pina Bausch can often pass aeons of stage time doing very little, but in Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Ahnen (created in 1987) everyone seems busy. Men and women build walls and drill floors, they scrub and rub, they dance in galvanised bursts of activity. A manservant irons a newspaper for a blind woman who randomly fires a pistol into the crowd. And as the dancers rush from task to task they’re also navigating a route through a perilously crowded set, a forest of giant cactuses, some of which are many metres high.

After the dark, slow emptiness of Gebirge, performed at Sadler’s Wells last week, it’s as though Bausch is choreographing on speed. And at first it’s difficult to get a sense of what she’s imagining. There’s little physical or emotional engagement between the dancers and a very confusing sense of place. While the cactuses evoke New Mexico, the music ranges from Japanese rock to European folk and the Caribbean. And who knows the source of the enormous floppy walrus and the remote-controlled helicopter that briefly invade the stage.

Yet the piece starts to cohere into a kind of logic as the dancers themselves begin to connect. Some of their encounters are crazily dysfunctional – such as the couple who mime a brutally comic cartoon fight, playing sports with each other’s body parts. Some are more intimately tender: the men who gently wheel a woman around in a water tank or hand out blankets from a wardrobe; the couples who slow-dance together and sing songs. What all these activities have in common, though, is the earnest passion with which they’re executed, and the random abruptness with which they’re abandoned.

Bausch seems to be portraying our world through the eyes of a visiting alien, choreographing a comedy of touching, silly, cruel, occasionally enchanting but ultimately pointless human activity. On opening night, when some malfunctioning stage machinery disrupted the performance for 20 minutes, it made a peculiar kind of sense. Viewed from its own comic perspective, the show itself was just one more absurd and fallible human endeavour.