How Pina Bausch’s ‘Bluebeard’ Challenges a Vicious German Fable

Pina Bausch’s 'Bluebeard', which has entered the Opéra de Paris repertoire, breaks away from tradition to deliver a subversive retelling of an age-old tale.

On stage at the Palais Garnier, a woman in a peach-colored dress lies motionless amongst dead autumn leaves. Behind her, a man sitting at a desk-like cart plays a recording of the opening to Béla Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The man rises from his seat and hurls himself on top of her. She drags his limp body across the floor, drawing a path in the leaves. The music gets louder, more violent, and just as the first words of the opera begin, he rises and rewinds the tape. The action repeats. Their efforts become more frantic, until finally he lifts her up and pulls her into an embrace. Wonder and concern fills the theater, as étoile dancer Léonore Baulac’s back begins to bleed.

When Pina Bausch’s 1977 piece first toured America in 1984, this opening scene caused indignation. Critics lamented the relentless presentation of violent gender relations, accusing Bausch of indulging in barbarism and pain pornography. Nearly 50 years on from the premiere in Wuppertal, Germany, audiences in Paris are encountering the work as interpreted by the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris. A dive into the tale’s history, and Bausch’s treatment of it, reveals a groundbreaking performance that exposes a myriad of cultural complexities.

While Charles Perrault’s classical tale Bluebeard is well-known, this is not the version the Palais Garnier audience witnesses. Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, to which Bausch remains thematically true, paints a decidedly more dark and destructive fate for his female lead. This is a mutation of the story that non-German audiences have historically found hard to swallow. Bartók’s opera was the first text in the European tradition to resist a utopian ending. Whereas Perrault’s female lead is saved from the murderous Bluebeard by her brothers and goes on to live happily ever after, Bartók’s is condemned for her curiosity. She is doomed to join Bluebeard’s previous wives, shackled in cloaks and jewelry, forever.

The liberty Bartók took with the tale is perhaps due to his conspicuous relationship with women. The composer and pianist married twice and had a series of affairs and obsessions with girls as young as 14. His second wife was just 16 when they married; he was 42. Although Bartók’s opera should not be considered autobiographical, his choice of subject and manipulation of Perrault’s 1697 tale into something far more sobering reflects the artist’s worldview. A gift to his then wife Márta, and a rare dedication for the composer, the opera was perhaps a metaphor for the composer’s own dark secrets. The message was clear enough: turn a blind eye, or risk something much worse.

Photography by Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris - Palais Garnier. All rights reserved.

German versions of Bluebeard, which followed the Hungarian Bartók’s opera, were heavily influenced by the darkness of his version, while other European countries continued to develop Perrault’s version of a more positive plot. So why, then, did Bausch choose Bartók’s Bluebeard over Perrault’s?

Bausch was deeply invested in the cultural context of her work. Although she lived and toured the world, Wuppertal remained the choreographer’s base and mirror. Bausch – a child of post-war Germany – recognized how the Bluebeard tale had been mobilized to strengthen the national myth of power and control. Versions which absolved Bluebeard and punished the curious wife continued to proliferate in a Germany struggling to accept its loss and face up to the horrors of its regime.

In Bausch’s expressionist ballet, the manipulative German Bluebeard tale is exposed. Her Bluebeard is not an authoritarian figure, but rather a desperately obsessed man haunted by a tape that he starts and stops and rewinds incessantly. In an image that recalls Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, he appears completely at the whim of his impulses and desires. Powerless in the face of fear of being discovered, and unable to wrestle himself from the throws of love and loneliness.

Bausch’s Judith is stricken by an immense love that both enlivens and threatens her. In an early scene, Judith leads each previous wife of Bluebeard towards him. Their heads bowed, she pulls back their hair and shows Bluebeard their faces, as if to force him to face up to his dark past. Her subsequent battles against him are proof that she will not accept his horrors.  Bluebeard continues to play his tape – just as the tale continues to be told – again and again, each rewind an attempt to suppress the truth.

Bausch goes further in her burlesque subversion by making the audience complicit. We are just like Bausch’s Bluebeard, a man who appears haunted by Bartók’s opera, and thus the callous German trope. Several times throughout the ballet, the lights are raised, illuminating the audience and directly implicating them.

These distinct moments make Bausch’s cultural commentary clear, cementing this piece as an unmissable and introspective watch. In a world where shining light on what has been kept in the dark has become critical, Bausch’s Bluebeard extends beyond her usual leitmotif of the difficulties of male-female relationships, to challenge a broader narrative. Viewers are reminded to think twice about what they are being told and implored to exercise agency in uncovering the truth.

Bluebeard by Pina Bausch is now showing at the Palais Garnier until the 14th of July.

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