Sweet Mambo @ Edinburgh International Festival

Review by Stephanie Green | 03 Sep 2014

"Don’t forget," say each of the female dancers introducing themselves in turn.

Sweet Mambo, first performed in 2008, is Pina Bausch's penultimate piece, without the dark desolation  or visceral force of her earlier works but still wonderfully life-affirming,  with the imaginative power for which she is famed,  transforming dance choreography into an immersive experience. 

Beautiful, poetic, and humorous, if tempered with ambiguity, there is something mercurial about Sweet Mambo. It is sweet in the best sense, not sugary sweet, but charming, erotic and delicate, laced with humour and an uncomfortable  feeling that not all is well and indeed moments of violence and anguish.  It is about the bitter-sweet game of love, so all-consuming but how easy it is to mistreat or forget past lovers.

There is no narrative.  Sweet Mambo proceeds by a series of emotional vignettes where the eroticism of the first act is largely from a female perspective. The women are in beautiful slinky satin long gowns, designed by Marion Cito. The male dancers, dressed in black,  are mainly merely props but it is also a refreshing reversal of so much male-oriented sexualised objectification of women as the men kiss, no, caress the women’s backs with their lips.  All very delightful until the one-sidedness of this experience becomes worrying especially when the men poke their heads through the women’s arms and are forcibly dragged round. The fawning, abject position of the men turns love into a power game.  The men become increasingly violent in their turn; one pulls a woman by her long hair; another ignores a woman who shouts ‘Talk to me’.  ‘Alright, then,’  she turns away finally: ‘I’ll just talk to myself,’ eliciting laughter from the audience.

This is typical of Bausch’s method  which can change mood from one sequence to another: a deeply emotional piece in a forest-scape is interrupted by a dancer declaring she loves to cartwheel and then proceeding to cartwheel round the stage.  These jump-cuts and other techniques borrowed from film, such as replaying a sequence in a loop, are particularly  effective for creating hysteria. One example is when Julia Shanahan runs across the stage pursued by two male dancers who grab her by the arms and force her to run back to the start, again and again until her growing  anguish becomes unbearable.

The music too is not one piece but extracts from different artists, all creating the mood of mambo, a Cuban dance music. Various soundtracks from Barry Adamson, Portishead, Tom Waits, to Nina Simone and many others, create a super-cool rhythmic background. The set, Peter Pabst’s set of  white curtains are an inspired dreamscape – all the more remarkable to learn that the curtains were left over from the company’s previous Indian tour and re-used for financial reasons – now re-imagined, billowing around the dancers, played with, the dancers appearing in and out of the folds. In an extraordinary scene a dancer crawls and swirls inside a great bubble-like cloud which blows in from the wings  to the sound of Lisa Ekdahl singing Cry Me a River – the highlight of the piece.

Later the atmospheric filmic projection of a forest, branches waving in the wind, spreads onto the floor of the stage.  A silent clip of couples at a party from the black and white 1938 film Der Blaufuchs (The Blue Fox) by Viktor Tourjansky and starring Zara Leander plays on the backdrop as a dancer gyrates to climax  on a man’s lap. Later the dancers move round the stage as if they too are at a cocktail party and even raise their glasses to the audience.  The boundaries of art and reality are further crossed as dancers address the audience directly. ‘Tell me your problem’ a dancer bends down to address the front row, ‘and I will scream for you.’ Julia Shanahan sloshes herself in real water from buckets – though it was a disappointment that more was not made of this. 

The overall experience conveys such a celebratory joyousness, this is the must-see performance of the festival.

Run ended