How do you find the soul of a city? It was a challenge that Pina Bausch and her company took on again and again with their World Cities series of tanztheater works – and Masurca Fogo, made in 1998, must rank as one of the most successful attempts.
Commissioned by the city of Lisbon, this is Pina at her most playful, letting her 20 dancers caper about the stage, radiating a sunny sensuality. The loose focus of this sprawling piece is probably the Brazilian dancer Regina Advento, who was part of the original cast: she sashays into the audience with bowls in her arms and a bucket on her head; dances slinky solos and exuberant duets; teasingly plays with and bites into apples (a temptress Eve); and when others are having riotous fun in a makeshift water slide, she’s wheeled on in a bathtub full of bubbles, serenely surveying the scene and using the suds to wash up dishes.
Other dancers still have time to shine – this is a two and a half hour show, after all. Nazareth Panadero, gloriously droll as ever, draws oohs and aahs from the men in the cast as she takes her evening passeio. Julie Shanahan, bedecked in red balloons, tells a protracted anecdote as she lights cigarettes for the men on stage – you can guess the result.
Live chickens, a hastily constructed party shack and a sad walrus dragging itself across the stage add to the sense of happy chaos. The set, a Peter Pabst creation, looks like a lava flow that has petrified inside a “white cube” art gallery – dancers array themselves as on rocks at the seashore. Large-scale projections flood the space periodically. The soundtrack encompasses music from Cape Verde, Brazilian waltz, jazz, tango, fado, Portuguese drumming and kd lang.
But Lisbon is about more than sunny Iberian fun. There’s a deep vein of melancholy in the Portuguese soul, known as saudade, which is caught in the country’s famous fado music. Masurca Fogo can plunge into unexpected dark corners, as when Shanahan is forced to bob for fruit, or when Andrey Berezin, imposing in a shot-silk ballgown the colour of port wine, rather menacingly directs two couples in a waltz. This is also a nation whose identity has been shaped by the sea, and as the piece reaches its climax, a powerful projection of crashing ocean waves is accompanied by dancers as mermaids and movement that suggests a subtle anguish with stretched limbs.
There are longueurs, and repetition of standard Pina tropes – water-spitting games, high heels, hair flicking, random anecdotes and screaming etc – that make you feel you’ve seen a fair proportion of all this before. But Masurca Fogo is nonetheless an enjoyable excursion into Pina’s world view – complete with an unexpectedly luscious, kitschly romantic ending that you’ll either love or hate.