A short introduction to Tanztheater

A group of men running in circles playing catch with enormous breeze blocks; a naked woman walking through a field of carnations playing the accordion; one man's stretchy body becoming the rope in a human tug-of-war. Such startling sights are the trademark of tanztheater (literally 'dance theatre' in German), a form that blends dance and everyday movement with theatre, speech, music and clever use of props and sets.

Tanztheater rarely tells a story - not in the way you would expect - but often tells of experience, reminds us of sensations or feelings and chimes with our own memories. It can be baffling, transporting and profoundly touching, sometimes without us even really knowing why.

German choreographer Pina Bausch, is tanztheater's most famous exponent, who once said she was not interested in how people move but in what moves them. A student of Kurt Jooss, whose masterwork The Green Table is an early example of tanztheater, Bausch's work seems to follow on from the German expressionist dance form Ausdruckstanz of the 1920s. She died at the age of 68 in June 2009.

Bausch set up her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, in 1973 and her theatre is a place of vivid imagination and grand scale. In her version of the Rite of Spring (1975) she covered the stage with wet earth, while in Arien (1979) she used water, which soaked into the dancers' costumes as the piece progressed - a visual reminder of the passing of time.

Belgium has proved to be fertile ground for dance theatre. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, for example, has picked up on its influence with her company Rosas. Then there's Wim Vandekeybus - with a background in psychology, film, theatre and acrobatics, he brought fast-paced, body-flinging, dangerous dance to the stage along with a mastery of multimedia and the occasional shock tactics - like the 'frog in the blender' scene in Blush (2002).

Animals on stage is a running theme. A dozen dogs were among the cast of Alain Platel's Wolf for Les ballets C de la B. Les ballets are not a ballet company at all but a collective of choreographers founded by Platel, including Koen Augustijnen, Christine de Smedt ,Lisi Estaras and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui - who has also been working with Akram Khan. Les Ballets are not afraid of big issues and social commentary - and combine politics with dance, comedy, acrobatics, monologues, live music and song in works such as Foi (2003), Tempus Fugit (2004) and Import Export (2006), all seen in the UK.

British artists often bring tongue-in-cheek humour to their observations of life's mundane details - DV8 are a prime example. Choreographer Jasmin Vardimon shines a light on society's quirks, foibles and dark corners with her powerful, inventive brand of physical theatre.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan and Jasmin Vardimon are all Associate Artists of Sadler's Wells.

by Lyndsey Winship




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