Two men enter holding empty water bottles. They proceed to calmly, deliberately swipe their arms through the air in unison, the bottles creating a low, rhythmic whoosh as they do so. A third man joins them, swinging a wooden pole to the same rhythm and adding texture to the simple soundscape. In this opening section, the repetition of vignettes underscores the sense of rhythm and ritual that the men set up.

This is Pina Bausch’s Vollmond (2006), with Peter Pabst’s iconic boulder looming with possibility from the start. There is also water. Lots of water. But this doesn’t feature until later. It is only when a performer splashes through the central strip, which has until then been kept in shadow, that the water makes its presence known, adding another layer to the soundscape. By this point, the performers have made several of their characteristically witty, sardonic observations to the audience and there has been a variety of music, but the live soundscape created by the water and the performers’ use of various objects (more bottles, lots of wineglasses) remains a constant thread through the work. It gives Vollmond a richness and cohesiveness, and is key in Bausch’s successful creation of a self-contained world.

This is real strength of Vollmond: despite seemingly disparate elements and what can sometimes feel like disjointed snippets of eccentricity, the world the characters inhabit is distinct. It is not present from the start: the world emerges slowly, subtly developing as the work progresses. Bausch does not over-rely on sets or props to set up the world (despite the conspicuous presence of both), but lets it emerge through the characters’ actions and relationships. It is a palpable world, whether or not individual moments resonate.

Not all moments do. There is a highly personal element at play: what one person finds amusing, another might find horrifying, another passé. But the large scope for individual response and interpretation in Bausch’s work is not always matched with a wide social scope; the fixed gender roles quickly start to feel limiting, and the scope for the portrayal of women seems particularly narrow. But how much of this is down to Bausch’s aesthetic? How much is critique?

The humour in Vollmond is characteristic of Bausch: there are dark sides aplenty, but there is also lightness, quirkiness, and hilarity. Often, witty text converts the slightly odd to the utterly absurd: a man splays himself across the boulder. A pause, then a shout: “it’s mine!”. A woman crawls across the stage, another character gradually draping her in pink cloth. “The Pink Panther,” he declares self-satisfactorily before exiting. Such moments, by taking what borders on the ordinary and making it extraordinary, bring the inherent absurdities of life to the forefront.

Numerous solos and duets allow glimpses into the psyches of different characters. Dominique Mercy’s solo resonates with particular power. When the rare ensemble section does occur, it is a welcome complement to the sparseness of the small groupings. Sometimes, the emsemble provides a moving landscape of bodies to offset a solo. In one such instance, the men glide back and forth, punting themselves urgently around the stage, completely overwhelming the lone female soloist. At other times the ensemble revisits motifs from the solos or duets, compounding their effect as the density of bodies takes the absurdities to more frenzied extremes.

The move from order to chaos becomes more extant as the work progresses. Admittedly, it was never an orderly order. Rather, an order with a sense of disorder, and this disorder magnifies as the work draws to its conclusion. As the two hour mark approaches the pace becomes more frenetic, and the characters revisit moments from earlier in the work. Traces of water and chalk are left on the stage as further evidence of past happenings. The energy builds and what was quirky becomes delirious as the breathtaking power of the performers and the water reaches new heights (literally). It is thrilling and exhilerating, bordering on the sublime. Awe mingles with disbelief as the performers are pushed to their limits, soaking wet and in the grip of an insanity. It is an insanity that makes me no longer want to be sane.

With nearly all of the house on their feet for a standing ovation, and the performers persuaded to return for a third bow, the audience’s response was almost as moving as Vollmond itself.