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KONTAKTHOF by Pina Bausch (Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch/Luminato). At the Bluma Appel (27 Front East) to June 14, Thursday-Saturday 7:30 pm. $45-$125. 416-368-4849, luminatofestival.com. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
The late Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal company hasn't performed in Toronto in about three decades, which makes their Luminato show Kontakthof the most anticipated dance show of the season.
The company doesn't disappoint. The massive 1978 work, one of those featured in Wim Wenders's haunting 2011 documentary/homage Pina, still feels startlingly fresh and invigorating. It's a work of such power and universal appeal that in the past decade and a half it's even been restaged for non-dance-professional seniors (called Kontakthof At 65) and adolescents.
But what a treat to see Bausch's gloriously diverse (in age, ethnicity, language, height) company perform this nearly three-hour piece, bringing years of experience to a work they know so intimately.
Intimacy, in fact, is a major theme in Kontakthof, which translates as "contact courtyard" and takes a clear-eyed, unsentimental look at the connection between the sexes. In the opening sequence, the performers approach the front of the stage as if they're looking at a mirror, slicking back their hair, patting down their outfits and checking their teeth. Ready to rock? Oh yeah.
What happens on this unusual date night is a funny, absurd and ultimately moving look at the search for the other that's at the heart of the human condition.
The setting, costumes and music suggest an old style dance hall, the ones where singles used to sit on chairs, waiting for someone to ask them to take to the floor. But there's also the feeling of a school auditorium, where class photos might be taken, nature movies screened and those activities we later repress in adulthood - chasing a kid around with a dead mouse, for instance - are given free rein.
All those images pop up in Kontakthof, some of them recurring in intriguing ways. This is a piece that demands to be seen multiple times, simply for the careful way Bausch has layered the motifs.
For instance, the image of a man carrying around an adult-sized blow-up doll is planted early on, then used for an amusing visual joke midway through and finally recalled one last time in a disturbing sequence in which a real woman - poignantly, one of the older company members - is passively being pawed at and fondled by all the men.
One of the most startling early images is of the men, seated but maniacally sliding their chairs and plunging their way towards a wall full of writhing women, a heightened mating dance all performed to the frenetic sounds of a boogie woogie tune. It's echoed later on when it's the women working their way towards the men.
The lighting in Rolf Borzik's set design helps demarcate the various temporal and psychological planes in the work. And there's an astonishing use of space. The performers stride or shuffle or slouch through the main playing area, but disappear behind it and slip through doors. They also occasionally address the audience in a couple of clever scenes that break down the fourth wall. (Hint: when the "photographer" figure walks out into the audience with Polaroids, get his attention and you'll walk away with a souvenir. I wish I had.)
The connections among Kontakthof's characters are exclusively heterosexual, however - something that betrays the work's age. But what's astonishing is how the personalities of the performers come across; a touch of arrogance reflected in a straight back, a flash of vulnerability and fear depicted in a look. Bausch knows that to move towards the audience or away from it, to turn your back on a person or cling to them, communicates something specific and real.
The work's central image is of the entire company smiling out at the audience and lightly marching in unison in a circle. The gestures they use might seem like everyday tics - the flutter of fingers, for instance, or the patting down of clothes - but they add up to a dance of life, a profound and moving look at what it means to be human.
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