There is no place like Rome for Pina Bausch. Premiered in 1986, Viktor is the first of her series of city-inspired works and her unique response to the Italian capital remains one of her most astonishing creations.
The set is a huge earthworks – either an archeological site or an enormous open grave. As the performers move through a miscellany of incidents, anecdotes, personal stories, jokes, surreal sketches and confrontations a man shovels earth from the top onto the stage beneath; a premature burial of the living citizens and a constant memento mori.
Viktor is suffused with death. From the opening scenes of a marriage between two corpses through to the bent, crone-like figure who wanders on and off like a grouchy Grim Reaper or Thin Controller (the Catholic Church, the Mother?) the mood is midnight-dark. But it is not relentlessly grim. Shards and splinters of humour and joy illuminate the darkness, like an auction of live dogs or the trio of slovenly waitresses reluctantly serving a lone diner during their cigarette break.
Ah, the cigarettes! Smoking is never far from a Pina Bausch work. Together with the costumes – long, slinky dresses for the women, dark suits and white shirts for the men – the effect is invariably of old school glamour; a kind of pre-Hays Code Hollywood where women enjoyed their sensuality even if it meant being targeted by men.
It is this dichotomy that Bausch explores in nearly every one of her works – the eternal dance between faithless men and exploited women. When the dialogue turns nasty, as it does here in a genuinely unsettling sequence in which two men repeatedly fill a woman’s mouth with water and wash themselves in the stream from her lips, the delicate balance between flirtation and abuse is destroyed. Three decades after its debut, it could hardly be more relevant.
While there may be echoes of Federico Fellini – though this is closer to the grotesquerie of Fellini Roma than La Dolce Vita – Viktor is cliche-free; this is a portrait of a city through the eyes of Bausch’s trusted collective (now augmented by performers who never knew her) to a characteristically evocative and eclectic soundtrack of 1930s dance music, Italian folk songs, music ancient and modern, popular and obscure.
The result is an epic work of mesmerising melancholy that may not delight the Italian Tourist Board but which Romulus and Remus would almost certainly have understood.