You may not have heard of Pina Bausch before seeing Wim Wenders' Academy-Award-nominated documentary, Pina. Even after seeing the film, you will be in posession of virtually no biographical information about the German dancer and choreographer, not even her surname. Nonetheless, what becomes quite clear throughout the 103 loving, bracing minutes of Pina is what an extraordinary influence Ms. Bausch had on seemingly everyone with whom she worked.
The members of her Tantztheater Wuppertal company, as diverse in age as is in nationality, speak of her in near-mystical terms. "I'm not interested in how my dancers move. I'm interested in what moves them," she once said. By all accounts offered by her dancers in the documentary, Pina was able to see in them and elicit from them their best, often with a minimum of direction. "Be more crazy," she implored one member of her company; "keep searching," was her ambiguous instruction to another. This left the latter dancer at a complete loss, but as often comes across in the the brief anecdotes offered in Pina, a dancer found a way to their better self. Unfortunately, the conversation, such as it was, ended abruptly.
Wim Wenders was planning a film with Pina Bausch, when she died on June 30, 2009, apparently days after a cancer diagnosis and just a matter of weeks before filming was to commence. He immediately cancelled the film, but was convinced by the dancers of Tanztheater to turn the planned collaboration into an homage. It would be a chance for all, dancers and director alike, to offer a goodbye to Pina that her sudden death seemed to have made impossible.
We get one of our few looks at the woman herself as Pina begins. She's on stage, a lean, darkly-clad figure, saying "Fruhling...Sommer...Herbst...Winter...Fruhling....," representing the seasons with a series of contained, sometimes playful gestures. Cut to her company as they weave onto the stage, all dressed semi-formally, a kind of chorus line of the four seasons, expressed not with kicks but those same movements of arms, hands, even fingers. It might be something of a funeral march, but it seems a quietly joyous one, something between the now established traditions of modern dance and the ebullience of a New Orleans funeral.
What follows is a long, if not full-blown performance of Bausch's staging of Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). The stage is covered by a thick, neat square of peat on which the dance is played out. It seems both modern and ancient at once. The movements are violent, percussive, inward not outward. Watching the female dancers, working in simple, neutral, slip-like garments, smudged with earth, it would seem that they must be rendering themselves black and blue as elbows are ruthlessly driven back toward their abdomens as the music gains a grim momentum. At the same time, the pervasiveness of the earth, the peat, hearken back to the inspiration of the rite (at least as imagined by Stravinsky and others), a pagan ritual that speaks to a relationship, even a slightly sinister obligation to the land. It's apparent why Bausch's 1975 conception of the ballet has enjoyed such a long and successful life of its own. The performance also gets Wenders' Pina off to a galvanizing start.
We see portions of three more of Bausch's most celebrated pieces during Pina. These are introduced by and interspersed with dancers from the company, presented in a kind of portrait confessional. Each looks into the camera (or not) in their way, some quite earnest, others less serious, and offers in voice-over their remembrance of or tribute to Pina. Her first name is evoked as exclusively as is the the absolute influence Bausch exercised on their dancing and lives.
If there's a criticism to be made of Pina as it extends beyond 90 and 100 minutes, it's in the ever-so-slightly take a number aspect of the portrait/confessions. But if a fault, it's noble one, allowing seemingly everyone in the company to offer their tribute. What that thread of Wenders' film may lack in imagination, it's well balanced, not only by the four Pina Bausch pieces we see in which a particular dancer might be featured, but by the manner in which the director and company leave the conventional performance space and go out into the city and countryside beyond.
The city is Wuppertal, Germany. We see the dancers in parks, at roadsides, within cooly modern interiors, amidst industrial settings or in a dank tunnel, in movements expressing trust, longing, despair, love, an attempt at transcendent flight. In one such episode, a male dancer emerges at the top of a dusty slope over a vast mining pit. His restless, abortive movements continue along the what appear's a cliff's edge. Bookending their "Season's March" at the outset of Pina, the entire company is seen strolling along the cliff side near film's end. More whimsically, in one of the sequences shot in a factory compound, a female dancer, she of the great mop of black curls (Cristiana Morganti, I believe), practically screams "This is veal," before moving in repeated circles en pointe, demonstrating one of those beautiful dance movements that as ever play havoc with joints and turn skin to raw meat. I can't help thinking that the dancer might well have screamed, "This is Darren Aronofsky with wit," before proceeding to dance with the veal stuffed into her slippers.
The most memorable exterior scenes occur, appropriately enough, in a part of the city that moves. This the colorful Wuppertal Schwebebahn (Wuppertal floating tram) which snakes over the city and its river. In Pina's most playful sequence, one of the male dancer's, Andrey Berezin, sits at the back of a car. Mr. Berezin posesses a stern, wolfish countenance. In this scene, he just happens to have large pair of pointed ears (that look like they were appropriated from the set of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) pasted to the sides of his head. He wears a quizzical expression...perhaps one of a man trying to not look conspicuous while sporting cartoonish ears. A women gets on the tram car with what appears to be a large pillow. Every movement - dropping the pillow, stamping it down, plopping it down on a seat - is accompanied by comically explosive sound from the woman, who's face is buried during the entirety of the scene in her own formidable head of hair (again, perhaps, Ms. Morganti).
The Schwebebahn scenes are brought all the more to vivid life by Wenders' decision to shoot in 3D. Frustrated by the inadequacy of standard film in capturing an art form which so operates in and exploits three-dimensional space, Wenders has created one of the great arguments for the viability 3D film with Pina. The Schwebebahn pulls out of a station and seemingly right into the movie theater. During the first "Seasons March," the dancers can be seen on either side of a diaphanous curtain, giving the audience not only a view to both sides but the tantalizing illusion of its folds at one's fingertips. During a performance of Bausch's Vollmond, a piece during which the stage is partially flooded by water cascading from above, it's surprising not to find one's self drenched from the profusion of drops of water that bounce off the stage and a gigantic boulder in its midst. As I sat watching all the great dancing that is projected in 3D during Pina, I wondered if Powell and Pressburger - so fond of dance and determined to combine film with other forms of art - were somewhere, smiling at all this. Or perhaps green with envy; a brilliant, green technicolor envy.
Perhaps the most telling thing that can be said about any manager, any general, administrator, choreographer and dance company artistic director...any leader of people, is how well their charges perform not while they are present, shouting orders or looking on with a critical eye. The most telling thing might well be what occurs in their absence. If you see Pina, you'll know little of where she came from, what sort of romantic life she might have led, even what drove her to the world of dance in the first place. But to see the members of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performing her enduring choreography and hear the near-litany of tributes they lovingly, earnestly offer, you do, in a sense, leave knowing the most important thing there is to know about Pina Bausch. It's abundantly clear with what consuming passion she approached her work and art, as well as the life-transforming inspiration that was visited upon seemingly all who were fortunate enough to work with her.
See Pina by all means. See it in 3D if you can.
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