Pina Bausch's dance cycle World Cities is one of the artistic centrepieces of the London 2012 festival. In collaboration with Sadler's Wells and the Barbican,
Bausch's company Tanztheater Wuppertal is staging 10 works inspired by great cities of the world. The choreographer died in 2009, and these works (the first, set in Rome, was made in 1986) span the second half of her creative career.
What they show, collectively, is how Bausch moved from the darkness of her early work, with its overtones of loss, despair and violence, towards a relative lightness of being. Bamboo Blues (2007) was inspired by Kolkata, and while evincing a typically Bauschian strain of melancholy – the fretting breeze that worries ceaselessly at Peter Pabst's white drapery set, the sad knowledge in the eyes of the women – the piece is also shot through with colour, light and dance.
There is barely a suggestion of the Kolkata of the thronging streets; instead, Bausch offers us a detached and perhaps privileged ennui, expressed through a succession of solo dances in which the performers spiral around invisible vortices as if drowning in whirlpools of air. Perhaps the most memorable of these is an extended sequence performed by Shantala Shivalingappa, a beautiful creation of dying falls and imploring, splay-fingered hands. The music is Indo-jazz fusion, its cool regret enhancing the brooding, storm-warning atmosphere.
There are intermittent, semi-surreal tableaux. As a man clad only in a loincloth proceeds across the stage, a second cast member balances sticks on his shoulders, arms and hands. It's a typically mordant metaphor; as he makes his exit, he seems to be carrying his own funeral pyre. "I dream of flying, cooking and cleaning," announces one woman, and another attempts to drown herself in a household bucket. There's the occasional Pina-esque visual joke, too, like the moment when a woman requires a man to literally jump through a hoop to kiss her.
But the piece is much less reliant on dialogue than usual, and there are none of the confessional sequences addressed to the audience which, if once resonant, now appear stale and insincere. Instead, Bamboo Blues is propelled by its dance content. Its performers are younger generation Tanztheater Wuppertal, and Bausch's pure dance choreography suggests a paring-down, a return to first principles. We can only surmise where this journey might eventually have led her.
I vastly preferred it to the much more florid and theatrical Der Fensterputzer (The Window Washer), which was inspired by Hong Kong and created in 1997. The piece is visually spectacular: Pabst's set is a 10-foot mountain of scarlet blossoms which the performers ascend, burst out of and, at one point, ski down. There are numerous fetishistic rituals, like the sequence when a man lovingly dries a woman's hair, or shaves her legs with a cut-throat razor. But in Bausch-land women are born to suffer, and these courtesies are balanced by scenes of anguish and frustration. In one, a woman repeatedly tries to climb up a table, while a man tilts it to the precise point where this becomes impossible.
Unfortunately, we've been here too often before with Bausch, and at times the straining for effect becomes frantic. There's some heavy-handed audience interaction involving the delivering of glasses of wine and bananas to the front-row seats, Mechthild Grossmann launches into a long and not especially amusing routine built around a blow job sight gag, and at one point a flame-thrower is wheeled on. Edit in some random female screaming, and you have late-period Bausch at its most meretricious. Surrealism, as the career of Salvador Dali illustrated, is killed stone dead by repetition.
But even here, Bausch can stop you in your tracks. As the company's 62-year-old artistic director Dominique Mercy launches into a flailing, scything routine, the vast edifice of scarlet blossoms behind him begins to creep across the stage. If faith isn't going to move mountains, Bausch is telling us, dancing just might.