One is often of two minds watching a Pina Bausch piece. The funny is often cruel and the beautiful reprehensible. This is certainly true for her latest piece to arrive at London’s Sadler’s Wells: Masurca Fogo. The piece, inspired by a sponsored trip of the company to Lisbon in 1997, is sunnier than most of Bausch’s pieces, but her knack for social satire and the battles of the sexes remains present under this layer of joy and jouissance. In fact, with this view of Lisbon, the German choreographer is saying more about her presumed audience than she does about the city.
The piece gives us a Lisbon—with a bit of Brazil and Cape Verde thrown into the mix—right out of a Lonely Planet guide. A sloping rock formation forms the back of the stage over which bare-footed dancers uncomfortably enter. Bright colours, flowers and waves are projected on the background while a collection of sultry music, including fado, is playing. Near the end of the piece, a little hut is built out of scrap materials in which the nineteen performers dance with each other uninhibitedly. Earlier, a real chicken is fed watermelon and a fake, although convincing-looking, walrus makes its way across the stage. The men wear fedoras, and the women summer dresses.
But the gendering does not end with these costumes. In the first scene—famous for featuring in Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable Con Ella—a female dancer is repeatedly carried, caught, and passed on across the stage by a group of men while she spiritlessly sighs into a microphone. Later, a fantastic Julie Shanahan—one of many dancers from the original cast still on stage in this London showing—shares a memory while dressed in a dress of red balloons. While lighting the cigarettes of the men around her, Shanahan tells the audience about her school teacher who used to come in every morning and ask her students about her looks and who made sure that they said she was beautiful. In the middle of the story, however, the men turn on Shanahan: with their burning cigarettes, they pop the balloons, reducing her colourful dress to a shameful nudity. Bausch is strongest in such visually striking, often funny, moments that are constructed out of stereotypical gender roles and violence against women. Whether subtly—a critic for The Guardian called Shanahan’s story ‘inconsequential ’—or bluntly about male-female relations, such scenes are always layered and deny straightforward interpretations.
Bausch’s portrayal of Portugal and its former colonies as rural and poor, but full of laughs and festivities, as well as stereotypes of macho men and theatrical women, could be easily dismissed as plainly problematic if this portrayal weren’t such an obvious fantasy. While the German comedy Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, 2016) is currently reminding audiences that there is more to life than hard work, Bausch complicated this idea, two decades ago, by presenting a bourgeois fantasy of a sunny, joyful Lisbon existing solely for an audience obsessed with hard work. How else to explain the incredibly kitsch ending where the women lie with their heads on the half-naked men while a time-lapse video of budding flowers is projected onto the background to The Hollies’ 1974 hit The air that I breathe? Just like Kraftwerk’s The Model played by a string quartet, which runs through much of the second half of the piece, Bausch creates a story of a German capitalist ethos dressed up in foreign sensuality.
At a certain point, one of the dancers, dressed as an old woman, turns to individual members of the audience and asks them, in a purposefully accented English: ‘Where are you from?’ The audience is implicated thus as tourists to this fantasy of the South, a place full of song and dance and abandon, a place where men are still men and women can still be women. It is precisely this fantasy of Lisbon which also makes this piece such a successful form for Bausch’s concerns. If in most of her pieces the gender stereotypes and violence against women take centre stage, are often bluntly repeated over and over again, in Masurca Fogo these scenes are embedded in a larger fantasy of a simpler, sunnier existence, subtler, and therefore all the more cunning.
Seen 10 February 2017, Sadler’s Wells, London.
Meindert Peters  is reading for a DPhil in German at New College, Oxford. He is a former professional ballet dancer.