Pina Bausch's 'Viktor'
Pina Bausch's 'Viktor'

You could clear security and fly to Rome in the time it takes to watch Pina Bausch’s Viktor. At nearly three and a half hours (including interval) the 1986 piece, the first of Bausch’s “World Cities” co-productions, is self-indulgently, watch-windingly long. Happily, like all work by the German Tanztheater legend, it is studded with exchanges and images that haunt the memory like something heard or seen in a dream — or a nightmare.

The Wuppertal troupe acquired a new artistic director, Adolphe Binder, in 2016 and there are new faces in the ensemble but many old hands are still going strong, notably Nazareth Panadero as an exasperated wife — “Dominique, you are so fascinating this evening! I am like a stick beside you!” — and a slipshod, chain-smoking waitress.

Weirdly, the gushing programme notes give neither snapshots nor biographies of this dazzling and idiosyncratic ensemble. The two sheep and three lapdogs presumably trained themselves.

Commissioned by Rome’s Teatro Argentina, Viktor abounds with Roman allusions and in-jokes. Peter Pabst’s massive, earthy set is an obvious nod to the city’s multi-layered archaeology but also a memento mori, a feeling intensified by the corpses that intermittently litter the stage and the steady, dust-to-dust trickle of soil that threatens to bury them all.

No one actually rides a Vespa (a trick missed? Or a cliché dodged?) but while there are countless nods to Roman streetlife — mink coats, fountains, cobblestones, café tables — the protagonists are most at home in Bauschland, a world where suited gents and tea-gowned beauties act out a never-ending stream of absurdist vignettes and regularly kick holes in the fourth wall. A dapper, smiling man sidles through the stalls selling dirty postcards. Smiling lovelies hand out slices of bread and jam. A pretty woman screams (again).

The punctuation is Pythonesque — when a sketch runs out of steam the performer is often simply carried off — and there are countless longueurs but Matthias Burkert’s music, an easy listening mixtape of classics, 1930s dance tunes and Italian folk songs, creates an illusion of structure and has a powerful impact on the mood and temperature of each vignette. Fred Astaire makes sublime poetry from a girl on a swing; Khachaturian’s Masquerade waltzes us to the brink of the abyss.

★★★☆☆

To February 11, sadlerswells.com; pina-bausch.de

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