Ten years on from the sudden death of Pina Bausch, her company has to make a choice – does it keep performing just her works, like a dance museum, or commission new pieces? And if it’s going to invest in new work, how much homage is too much homage?
Bon Voyage, Bob…, by the Norwegian choreographer, director and playwright Alan Lucien Øyen, has café tables, a proliferation of chairs, lots of onstage smoking, high heels and flowing evening dresses, a burst of audience participation and a smattering of Bausch-like soundtrack choices. It’s also three hours long, not including the interval. But a tanztheater classic this is not, as evidenced by the number of empty seats after the interval.
The Greek disruptor Dimitris Papaioannou, the first to make a new piece for the company, grafted his own oddball obsessions on to Pina’s vision, making a ludic, nostalgia-filled mythical world. Øyen has gone for an overarching theme of death and bereavement, grounding the work in a largely domestic sphere. Confessional anecdotes worked up with the cast are cut and pasted through the piece, with different performers repeating lines and stories as Alex Eales’s set keeps spinning to create seemingly endless configurations of down-at-heel rooms.
Sudden death, often suicide, often of men (fathers, brothers) make up the bulk of the stories. It’s downbeat stuff and that heaviness permeates everything. By the second half the pace is best described as leaden; a fragmented Continental drift, if you will, with a babble of languages and a Euro-filmic air (a touch of Wim Wenders, some bursts of surrealism that bring to mind Roy Andersson).
There are moments that resonate – Tsai-Chin Yu’s depiction of frantic, physically manifested grief stays with you; the macabre humour of Andrey Berezin’s highly inappropriate undertaker is a naughty pleasure. The Bausch veterans Nazareth Panadero and Julie Shanahan are on form, as always. And when the dancers step forward in turn to punctuate the acted fragments with a solo or duet, it’s often beautifully choreographed, with heartfelt vigour and flow, even when not entirely successfully integrated into the piece.
But a couple of lazily mawkish moments, tracts of faux-philosophical meandering (“Does a dress feel pretty?” etc) and rather too much button-pushing mood music imbue the piece with the sense that its creators doubted the material’s emotional impact. And that doubt really undermines the whole enterprise.