Pina Bausch’s best work always hovered between the familiar and the unknown. The late choreographer revelled in borders and thresholds, the hinterlands where fantasies collide with reality. The gulf between men and women — their conflicting desires, instincts, clout — was one of her favourite trenches to plumb, so it’s no wonder she was drawn to Bluebeard. Her 1977 production was shown for the first time in the UK this month.
The show’s full title — Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s Opera ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’ — is the first hint at its tangled drift. Splintered into cryptic scenes, some buoyant, some disturbingly visceral, it doesn’t narrate Perrault’s folk tale about a serial wife-killer but contemplates its violence: Bluebeard’s catapult between cruelty and melancholy, his new bride’s doomed bid for deliverance. It’s a dance of manipulation, with Bluebeard taking charge, usually through physical force. He even conducts the music, rewinding a tape recorder to replay snatches of Bartok’s early 20th-century score, though it’s Bausch who’s the real maestro here, flipping gloom on its head. Savage encounters turn frisky; jokey montages end in bodies beaten against walls. Nothing is straightforward — a riddle she would return to in works such as Café Müller (1978) and Victor (1986), resisting black-and-white moral scrutiny.
Christopher Tandy brings a brutal pragmatism to the title role — he doesn’t want to hurt you, but he will — while Silvia Farias Heredia is his terminally hopeful wife, bolting (and later limping) through dead leaves to dive into his arms once again. As the men of the ensemble creep and gurn, the women defer, swerving between fawning and frightened. They’re gifted a fleeting moment of dominance when they join forces and whip Bluebeard with their hair.
At two hours uninterrupted, it’s a long, wearying watch, full of duplicated outbursts, each reworked with ever-sharper fury. The repetition is the point, I guess — a nod to the grapples lovers insist on going to bat for — but it doesn’t make these bruising encounters any easier to witness. Where the mood is ugly, though, the stagecraft is bright. Bluebeard tees up the high-throttle theatricality and expressiveness we’ve come to associate with the author of modern Tanztheater, the lush sets and waggish peacocking. There’s historical value here, no question.
The choreographer Cathy Marston totes her own decorated catalogue, and her new ballet, The Cellist, is a choice addition. In step with her fondness for distinguished female subjects, it spotlights Jacqueline du Pré, a mid-century cello prodigy who lost her gift to multiple sclerosis. It’s Marston’s first main-stage production for the Royal Ballet and distills a complex chronicle into a thoughtful hour of dance.
Lauren Cuthbertson brings a wistful radiance to the central role, clasping her instrument with longing. By instrument I mean fellow principal Marcelino Sambé, who’s tasked with animating her cello as a living, feeling companion. It’s a delicate act, but Sambé pulls it off, melting into Cuthbertson’s rocking pliés while gusts of Elgar and other staples from Du Pré’s rep surge in the background. There’s fluency in their sways, serenity to the way they curl into each other’s blank spaces. Marston’s choreography is resourceful, gesturing at orchestral performance without tipping into literalism.
The ballet zips through 30 years of biography, including Du Pré’s teenage debut and her marriage to the conductor Daniel Barenboim (Matthew Ball, looking very debonair). The storyboarding is muddy —there are some forgettable characters and confusing timelines, some fussing with cardigans and cello cases — though it prudently leaves the MS struggle for the final chapter. Kudos to Marston for defining her subject by her talent, not the disease that stole it.
No such nuance in the other half of this double bill, a revival of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. That it’s a vehicle for technique, not narrative, should be self-evident — it has no plot or characters — but apparently early audiences needed it spelled out, because Robbins yell-wrote some explicit instructions to the editor of Ballet Review in 1972: ‘please print in large, emphatic and capital letters [that] THERE ARE NO STORIES TO ANY OF THE DANCES IN DANCES AT A GATHERING…THE DANCERS ARE THEMSELVES DANCING WITH EACH OTHER TO THAT MUSIC IN THAT SPACE.’
‘That music’ is a string of Chopin piano pieces, including a mazurka that races like a Looney Tunes chase scene. It’s a fickle soundtrack — witty one minute, elegiac the next — that sends the dance to all sorts of places: sliding splits and flicking feet, centre-stage gallops and lifts that zoom into the wings. Marianela Nunez is the best of the bunch at carving out quiet moments amid the noise.
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