When Pina Bausch embarked on her World Cities series in the ’80s, striking up temporary residencies in locales as far-flung as São Paulo and Santiago, she sought to capture the wrenching needs, desires and fears that unite people the world over. The dance theatre works created during these sprees are searching and seductive, mingling lust and passion with darker human instincts. Some relay literal imagery and music picked up during the company’s travels, while others revel in abstraction, foregrounding sentiments inspired by their stay but only occasionally reflecting a city’s particular history and ambiance.
“Viktor,” created after a 1986 sojourn in Rome, falls into this latter camp. The production plies motifs of excavation and commerce—allusions to the Ur-metropolis, the fabled birthplace of Western civilisation—while spotlighting further-reaching sources of elation and despair. Mortality gets the biggest look-in—a conceit ripe for exploration in the Eternal City. The opening scene is awash in images of death, including the improbably comical marriage of two corpses, while the set design—a sky-high quarry flanking the stage—quickly adopts the appearance of a grave as a man begins the production-long toil of filling it in with dirt. The memento mori goes surges in a climactic speech about an orphaned boy who journeyed as far as the sun and stars only to find out that it’s “all dead. He was all alone, and he sat down and cried. And he’s sitting there still, all alone!”
Is this downtrodden hero the titular ‘Viktor’? Does it matter? A desire to confound plays at the edges of the work’s freewheeling vignettes, which are silly as often as they are intense. A man romps around with a lighter, pretending to be a “fire dragon.” Another bursts into tears as he begs for coffee. Chairs fly, legs scuttle out from blankets, and buttered dinner rolls are doled out to the front row. Look closely and you’ll see familiar Bausch tropes anchoring these singular antics: flying hair, absurd props, masses of bodies, arch, lilting pronouncements. Also evident is the company’s trademark warmth, their unmistakable invitation to the audience to be part of the joke, even when it’s unclear what the joke is. This positive resolve goes a long way in anchoring the production’s disparate moods and rendering its absurdist exploits dreamy rather than detached.
Some of the show’s most powerful moments probe misogyny and power dynamics. Women are lugged, prodded and groped by turn. One laughs on command via remote control; another has a smile physically pried out of her. Many gags sit at an uneasy intersection of humour and disquiet: a (cacophonously) crooning woman silenced with a coat tossed at her face, a man fondling a passerby with one hand while embracing his girlfriend with another. The ambiguity is potent, stoking the tension between laughing with these women and laughing at them.
Not all the material is this sharp-witted, though. There’s more than one sequence of poker-faced characters performing inscrutable actions at length—superfluous phrases that contribute little beyond pushing the production over the three-hour mark. Far more justified are the high-powered auction montages, with everything from furniture to puppies on sale, and a vigorous recurring solo from Breanna O’Mara, brisk and almost brutal in her swings. There’s great energy and care on show from the 30-odd dancers, including those younger company members who had little or no contact with Bausch before her death in 2009 and have inherited this work through the diligence of the old guard.
Like much of Bausch’s work, the action in “Viktor” transpires outside of any discernible era. There’s a timelessness in the costuming—classic suits, ultra-femme dresses, cigarettes galore—and the elusive soundtrack, which ranges from mournful opera to jaunty Sinatra. Her particularity of vision is both vintage and progressive, and for every quirky conversational scene is a luxurious display of aesthetics: chichi city-dwellers swaying to bandstand tunes, sequin-clad sirens swinging from the rafters.
Bausch once said that homesickness and wanderlust are “probably the same thing.” Her vision here is ruminative, reflective—resolute and interrogative at once. As ever, it’s an ode to journeys and the rich places they take us.