Bodies collide, collapse, contract, swing from the rafters and are auctioned off in a revival of Bausch’s gorgeously dark piece, Viktor, as told by our contributor Christy Wensley.
A woman stands centre stage, tall, erect, her blonde hair pulled back, her angular face with high cheekbones and sharp features thrust forward. She walks towards the audience, smiling, perhaps confidently, perhaps nervously, expressivity with movement minimised, stilled. She wears a fitted red blouse, a black pencil skirt and black stilettos. She has no arms.
The opening moments of Viktor, the revival of Bausch’s 1986 piece at Sadler’s Wells, are an invitation to a darkly comic and riotously tragic world where bodies are made material. They are variously objet d’art to be viewed, judged, purchased or matter, elements of ‘nature’ like water and the dirt falling from the top of the monumental set, pushed over the edge by a man and his tools. This opening Venus de Milo is followed by a rush of overlapping scenes: a woman rolled into a Persian rug, a dead couple ‘married’ and maneuvered into position, another dancer travelling the centre line, this time her legs unused as she scoots forward, propelled by her wildly tossing arms and hair. These bodies are picked up and moved off stage as an auction of ‘objects’ begins, with paintings, vases, clocks, an iron, a teapot, called out for bidding. Viktor is about display and exchange, as it is enacted through different interpersonal relations, including the sexual, the platonic, the mundane, and the staged as the dancers exchange personae throughout. They are not only multiple characters, but they continuously adopt and revise each other’s movements or costumes, including a black fur coat and a gold column of sequins exchanged among both men and women in the company. In this economy, the controlling symbol of the auction recurs, with various objects placed on the block, including live dogs and as in the image above, people. In the closing moments before the interval, women stand on chairs, measured, marked, and on display, while men in evening dress make themselves up, methodically applying powder, lipstick, mascara, blush – the two rows for sale to the oncoming group of suited middle aged men – and to the audience just beyond the stage.
Women teeter on tall heels and swing from circus rings in evening gowns while Astaire croons, a joyful respite from the evident physical control required in most moments. But as the final performers are lowered, while swinging, you can see the strain, the strength, yet also a hint of uncertainty in the drop…
A kaleidoscope of references from ‘fine’ art, to ballet and film, the audience becomes immersed, or rather buried, in Bausch’s subterranean world, one that is alternately spare, controlled, still or wild, chaotic, deeply subversive. It is a dangerous piece, ideologically confrontational, sexually and racially problematic, and yet perhaps problematising, but also physically precarious. Women teeter on tall heels and swing from circus rings in evening gowns while Astaire croons, a joyful respite from the evident physical control required in most moments. But as the final performers are lowered, while swinging, you can see the strain, the strength, yet also a hint of uncertainty in the drop, performative or ‘real’ – it really doesn’t matter. The ‘performed’ and the ‘real’ are simultaneous and inextricable.
A commentary on dance in these systems of control and manipulation of others’ bodies, specifically ballet and its discipline and punishment, also winds its way through the work. A dancer walks to front centre stage holding pointe shoes in one hand and raw meat in the other; she announces ‘This is raw meat!’ before wrapping her toes, then stuffing the meat and feet into the pointe shoes. En pointe, her legs and feet move with precision, an unbroken line of balletic control, while her arms and head move wildly with the recognisable jerks of more modern styles of dance and of earlier moments in Viktor. Looking at her legs, we observe the muscles and lines, the evidence of the strain placed on the body in the ‘unnatural’ and exceptional toe shoes; and we recognise the similar display of muscle in the heels that Bausch’s dancers wear in every other scene. Ginger does it backwards and in heels – and Bausch has refigured this onto her dancers, including a male dancer in ‘drag,’ in one of the many deliberate moments of joyfully and subversively troubled gendered roles. At over three hours, the constant movement combined with these costuming choices must be exhausting, while the realisation of the power and strength of the performers is, for us as audience, exhilarating.
Bausch refuses the exclusively masculine auteur gaze as aesthetic ideal. Instead of an anxiety of possession or sating one’s sexual appetite for female or feminine bodies, Viktor is a critical exposure of bodies at work and being worked in multiply gendered forms…
It is also terrible, in its awe-inducing classical context: the towering walls of earth that create the set could be a pit, a mass grave, or a Coliseum, and the combatants, although physically impressive, are also demonstrably weary, as they act out their relationships of service and performance. Despite its title, Viktor is not always explicitly or consistently ‘Roman’, though produced with Teatro Argentina in Rome as one of a series of international co-productions made in partnership with cities around the world. Still, there is a resonance with Italian art, including reference to Fellini’s films 8 ½ and Roma. The parade of women as types, elements of the costuming, for example, men styled as 8 ½’s Mastroianni with black suits and his signature glasses, as well as some of the carnivalesque chaos echoes the absurdist sexuality of Fellini. However, Bausch refuses the exclusively masculine auteur gaze as aesthetic ideal. Instead of an anxiety of possession or sating one’s sexual appetite for female or feminine bodies, Viktor is a critical exposure of bodies at work and being worked in multiply gendered forms. There is a long uncomfortable scene where Indonesian dancer, Ditta Miranda Jasjfi, becomes a human fountain for two men who eventually strip to the waist of their grey suits, and for the willowy redhead Breanna O’Mara, who has been undressing and redressing coyly for the audience before being showered in Jasfi’s spit. If this is a blunt description, it is an intentionally unsettling act – one of many as Bausch explores bodies, how they matter and the ways in which they become material to be manipulated.
Bausch’s extraordinary company, including dancers who knew and worked with her before her death in 2009, is diverse. This piece highlights these ‘figures’ as individuals who have collaborated or created their own movements, but also as categories and types, intentionally launched into the piece and into our consciousness as a comment on bodies in art. These bodies range, though not exhaustively, of course, in age, shape, height, ethnicity, and gender identity, presented, as in the opening, and in other scenes without, or seemingly without the ability to move, limbs. Yet, even while defying the limits of gender, of dance, and of the type of forms – thin, white, tall, which are often privileged in art and in media –Viktor reminds us that we cannot escape the consumerism and consumption of each other; and, to be aware of this, is to challenge it. There is a point where the audience become multiple ‘consumers’, as the front few rows are served bread with butter and jam by evening dress-clad dancers. In addition to this play on ‘taste’ and the riot of sounds – the music, but also screams, and speech – we smell the constant cigarette smoke floating from the stage, all of our senses engaged. Viktor is, in this way, an incredibly sensual work, though not necessarily a sexy one. By foregrounding objectification of bodies in sexual exchange and the enactment of different levels of physical and verbal power struggles between the players, the work is thrilling, but troubling.
It is an astonishing show, and for all it asks of the dancers, and of us as its audience, it is gorgeous and life-affirming. Dance here fulfills what Bausch refers to as ‘the fantastic possibility we have on stage’ where ‘we might be able to do things that one is not allowed to do or cannot do in normal life.’ David Jays, editor of Dance Gazette, in his essay, ‘Homeland’, the centerpiece of the performance programme, and Emily Stokes in her 2012 Paris Review essay, ‘Dancing with Myself’, both affirm that Bausch’s work changed their lives. Their pieces, as well as Wim Wenders’ 2011 Pina, attest to the power of her direction and choreography; they attest to her own insistence on performance as collaboration between herself, the dancers, the costume designers, the set as well as the audience. Pina asks us to work and think, and in doing so she challenges our expectations of what dance is and can be. Closing with Bausch’s own words after witnessing the bodies her choreography set in action on stage, we can think about this challenge that the late choreographer set for herself, her dancers, her audience:
Sometimes, we can only clarify something by confronting ourselves, with what we don’t know. And sometimes the questions we have bring us back to experiences which are much older, which not only come from our culture and not only deal with the here and now. It is, as if a certain knowledge returns to us, which we indeed always had, but which is not conscious and present. It reminds us of something, which we all have in common. This gives us great strength.
Viktor by Tanztheater Wuppertal was performed at Sadler’s Wells, 8th-11th February 2018.