The batteries are removed from the clock on the wall; an angel and surgeons officiate a supper with Satan; a giant game of hangman is played with the audience. These and many other seemingly disparate elements come together in Bon Voyage, Bob to create a show of staggering depth and significance. The second new work of choreography created for Pina Bausch’s Tanztheatre Wuppertal, it strikes a very different tone to the dark and sinuous Since she. Alan Lucien Oyen has created a piece that is characterfully human, as warm, funny and expressive as it is heart-breaking.
The dancers narrate stories, creating spoken scenes and monologues that are danced over, or not, the choreography incorporating stillness and gesture into the landscape of abstracted movement. It is wonderful to hear the voices of the dancers as they tell their stories. They cover everything from the mundane experiences of childhood to suicide and debilitating grief with a philosophical balance and poise. Nothing is emoted or pushed, and no one is destroyed by their experiences: the death of fathers, mothers, brothers and friends are spoken of with dignity and calm. A moment of Classical Greek theatrical horror runs up against deadpan humour when a woman who has unspooled red threads of tears from her eyes is brusquely told by the funeral parlour attendant that she has left it much too late to be choosy about her father’s burial plot. “You should have thought of this years ago” he chides her, whilst she whimpers and acquiesces humbly to her father being “squeezed in” with someone else. Such are the compromises we make with death.
Despite an overwhelming preoccupation with the theme of death in various forms Bon Voyage, Bob is in essence a piece of creation, of what springs from razed ground – whilst parents scream and smash plates, two siblings create a dance of extraordinary power and beauty, harnessing the explosive anger of the argument next door into fluid and expansive movement. The dancers are exceptionally talented, moving in a variety of styles with freedom and precision. Abstract solos blend with vintage waltzes, scene-changes and repetitions to create a rich diversity in the physical expression, a diversity which is mirrored in the methods employed to explore the narratives brought by the dancers. A huge chalk board is transformed into a beautiful canvas, an angel holding the head of a man in his hands and offering it out towards half-submerged mountains and a ship: the same chalk board is scrawled with “I’m still here” in as many languages as the writer can manage before he is picked up and used as an enormous, writhing rag to wipe away his own words. A hand-held radio is used to great effect, creating an archival feel to some episodes whilst adding a detached internal monologue to others.
It is a piece that more than merits its three-hour running time, more moving than any Hamlet or King Lear and feeling more eternal even than these monolithic bastions of taste, culture and emotion. We finish in a snowy landscape, a bank of pine trees reaching up behind the company as they perform a dance of ceremony and gesture. A lone chair is left onstage: for those we have lost, for the remarkable choreographer who inspired this work of such intense beauty and significance.
It is transcendent.