Andrey Berexin, Julie Shanahan and Tsai Chin Yu in “Bon Voyage, Bob . . .” for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Photograph by Mats Bäcker

What Else is There to Say?

Alan Lucien Øyen's “Bon Voyage, Bob . . .” for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in “Bon Voyage, Bob . . .” by Alan Lucien Øyen
Sadler's Wells, London, UK, February 22, 2019
Sara Veale

The question of new work has loomed large over Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch since its eminent founder passed away in 2009. Determined to uphold the late Pina Bausch’s legacy, her troupe has spent the past decade restaging her greatest hits in an effort to pass them on to a new generation of dancers and audiences. This year marks a new course for the company, as it expands its repertoire to include material from outside artists for the first time. Norwegian playwright and choreographer Alan Lucien Øyen is one of the chosen few: his “Bon Voyage, Bob . . .” joins Dimitris Papaioannou‘s “Since She” as one of two inaugural new commissions.

Tanztheater Wuppertal is a sizable, diverse ensemble, taking in a range of nationalities, ages and body types. Øyen was allocated half of its 32 performers for “Bob,” which partly explains why it feels thinner than sweeping spectacles like “Viktor” and “Masurca Fogo,” both shown in London in recent years. Another contributing factor is the fragmented staging: Øyen rarely assembles his cast as a whole, favouring a rotation of small groups instead. The upside is a closer look at the individuals powering the show, but it’s a shame to miss out on their collective might—these veteran performers are rarely more alive than they’re cavorting en masse.

“Bob” ruminates on death and the uncannily large presence a person’s absence can have. Across a carousel of shabby kitchens, pine-hewn lodges and poky funeral homes—revealed through a natty rotating set—portraits of loss emerge. Disembodied voices crackle from faraway transmitters; widows question their spouse-less futures. The show’s emotions dance on the margins of grief: laughing turns to sobbing, tussling to violence, excitement to anxiety.

Movement, drama and music feature across the production, though the blend is noticeably light on dance. Instead, text-based sketches take the lead, with narratives wending convoluted arcs that often collapse in on themselves. Blossoms of black humour spring up: a guileless funeral director who offers his customers urns for ashtrays; a phone conversation with ‘Love,’ who greets her caller’s enthusiasm with a promise to ruin his life. These larks give amusing shape to the puzzling heartbreak of bereavement, but they’re outnumbered by tedious, nonsensical gags that let down the entire enterprise. Virtuosos like Julie Shanahan deserve better than a derivative Twin Peaks spoof or a quiz show parody with painfully contrived questions like “Is a still life painting still alive?”

Douglas Letheren and Rainer Behr in “Bon Voyage, Bob . . .” for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Photograph by Mats Bäcker

The dance sprinkled in usually appears in solo form and takes in some eye-grabbing routines: Emma Barrowman serving up deep, plunking pliés, Jonathan Fredrickson roiling in a fit of wrenched lines. There’s no unifying quality to the choreography, though; it’s a grab bag of scooting, slashing and contracting, with body-pumping thrusts carried out alongside placid rebounds. The sketches don’t weave in these moves so much as pause to accommodate them, giving the impression of a drip-feed of disparate scenes, some of which happen to be dance-focused.

“Bob” offers certain nods to Bausch’s celebrated brand of dance theatre. The costuming hints at her penchant for mid-century chic, with dresses, heels and cigarettes galore, while gently bemusing skits—including a game of hangman with the audience—offer a glimpse of the trademark charisma she inspired in her performers. The faculty of the old hands feels especially present: Nazareth Panadero’s dizzying physical comedy, Shanahan’s delectably serene delivery.

At the same time, Øyen seems to consciously eschew Bausch’s wide-eyed wit, turning his focus to confession and sentimentality. Unfortunately, these themes are undone by unsubtle, overwrought choices in dialogue, music and staging. The decision to make the show more than three hours long is especially trying. By the interval mid-way, you wonder what else there is to say.