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Aida Vainieri in Pina Bausch's 1985 "Two Cigarettes." Photo copyright Jochen Viehoff and courtesy Sadler's Wells.

Copyright 2013 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- There's a claustrophobic feel to the bright, cell-like setting of Pina Bausch's 1985 "Two Cigarettes in the Dark," seen February 17 at Sadler's Wells on Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. The white walls, intersected by a back window looking out on a garden and an aquarium partially visible through a window cut into the wall at downstage left, suggest the privileged habitat of people who turn out to behave as if they are imprisoned by their wealth -- a Los Angeles mansion perhaps, or a museum to exhibit the bored, empty and dysfunctional couples and individuals within.

The 11 performers scramble around inventing childish pranks to play on one another which often become sadistic and cruel: Women are carried on stage like lifeless insects. A man treats a woman despicably, ordering her to urinate into a bucket. In wild agitation, a women runs round the room with her partner, then bangs him repeatedly against the walls. In another scene, a man humours his woman and treats her like a pet, before slapping her viciously. And so it goes on: a continuous walk-on comic strip of events, some violent, some humorous, touching, or lyrical, all describing the frailties and flaws of the human condition, illuminated by a collage of subtly potent music from composers such as Monteverdi, Purcell, Beethoven, and Ben Webster.

In "Two Cigarettes," the performers are isolated and cut off from one another, operating as individualists rather than couples. They show little interest in or compassion for each other and at times exhibit downright hostility. When one amorous couple do try to celebrate their love outside of the enclosed space in an exotic jungle, they are shot by an elderly actress (Mechthild Grossman). However, although unpleasant scenarios do unfold -- like physicalized eruptions of suppressed anger, fear, and unhappiness -- the general flavour of "Two Cigarettes" is muted and intriguing in its depiction of an engulfing 'ennui.'

One of the 'stars' of the show is the unassuming figure of the lanky Bausch veteran Helena Pikon, whose fragility and vulnerability is captivating. Whether dancing introverted movements, bent over from the waist, reaching up to the sky as her dress falls off, stuffing her face with paper like a bulimic, or meekly sharing some dream with the audience, Pikon fills us with pity and makes us uncomfortable. She has the skill to embody the degraded victim, all disheveled hair and costume, with fierce conviction.

Grossmann, a Joan Collins type with her vampish dresses and lush demeanor, opens the show by striding downstage and announcing in her deep, gin-soaked German accent, "Come on in. My husband is away at war." She then shares a series of absurd anecdotes before metamorphosizing into an exhausted and demoralized farm laborer, shoveling dirt and hay, a cigarette dangling from her lips. Like Pikon, Grossman reveals an impressive versatility in embodying personality extremes.

Though their characters may be riddled with misery or fear, the performers are still determined to create a glamorous party feeling and in these light moments, which are full of Bausch's delightfully surreal juxtapositions, sophistication and absurdity reign hand in hand. Long evening dresses and suits are always on show; two dandyish men, clutching champagne bottle and glasses, stand demurely downstage drinking then spouting fountains from their mouths; four women perform handstands to the sounds of Monteverdi, which gives them an alluring gravitas. Julie Shanahan sits on a carpet, all smiles, dressed in lavish furs and sipping from her wine class, while a man performs yogic contortions beside her. The immortal Dominique Mercy (also the company's co-director) climbs out of the aquarium in dinner suit and flippers and waddles off stage, cool and unphased.

Even after the dancers comport themselves like rambunctious children in a long, sweaty, bumpy ride around the stage to Ravel's "La Valse," rocking on their bottoms in a snaky line and careening against the walls in their endlessly frustrated attempts to find the exit, a waiter still treats them as demure guests strolling into his restaurant as he serves champagne to all.

One of Bausch's older and more obscure creations, "Two Cigarettes" is less dancey and more theatrical than some of Bausch's later works, such as "Vollmond" (2006), which was also presented at Sadler's Wells for this season. Choreography and visuals drive "Vollmond" (previously reviewed by my DI colleague Paul Ben-Itzak here) and make it physically and visually spectacular, but intellectually and emotionally it is less interesting and complex than "Two Cigarettes." This earlier piece has that gritty power of pushing us out of our comfort zones by making us scrutinize both our own and other people's relationships and habits, but makes us laugh as well. Bausch's untiring fascination with people is infectious and I think about her gaze for most of the show. Nearly four years after her sudden death from lung cancer, both her and her dancers' ability to communicate ideas and emotions remains unrivaled.

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