Dancing Queen

film pinaaChoreographer Bausch celebrated in wildly invigorating ‘Pina’

The late, legendary German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch is the subject of Pina, an utterly thrilling cinematic tribute by Wim Wenders. “You always felt more than just human, working with Pina,” recalls one of her dancers, and this is more than just a documentary, or a dance film, or a memorial. Wenders crafts an extraordinary plunge into the mystery of the creative process, a visionary concept film that reinvents the way dance is viewed onscreen, and a wildly invigorating expedition into the soul of an artist.

It may be part documentary, part concert film in format, but Wenders tweaks everything we think we know about these genres. Members of Bausch’s acclaimed, multinational Tanztheater Wuppertal dance company speak of their friend and mentor, but there are no talking heads; the dancers gaze enigmatically into the camera while their remarks are heard in voice-over. Bausch herself is seen in archive footage, dancing onstage or working with her dancers in the rehearsal room, but there’s no conventional third-person narration. Everything we learn about her we glean from her own words, or from the power of her work.

And powerful it is, as Wenders presents long, generous sections of Bausch’s dances in performance throughout the film. And it’s all shot in 3D, which turns out to be surprisingly useful in recording spatial relationships in dance pieces where multiple planes of movement can be so crucial (when the entire company is onstage, for instance, with the action broken up into various vignettes upstage and downstage). At other times, Wenders abandons the stage altogether, shooting dance sequences out in a public park, or under (or inside) the elevated trains at a busy city intersection (or inside the station, above the rails); on a moving escalator, or in a burbling river.

These plein air segments underscore the vitality of these playful, haunting, witty or furious dances by placing them out in the real world of real human passions that inspired them. But when the stagecraft itself is an important element in a dance, Wenders films it that way. This is especially true of Bausch’s electrifying choreography to Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” in which metaphorical blood-red swatches (a sheet; a dress) permanently alter the way two groups of tremulous young women and men relate to each other. For this dance, the stage is covered with dark brown dirt, with which the dancers become progressively more soiled as their innocence disappears.

Another dance, “Full Moon,” involves a giant rock, a curtain of rain showers upstage, and a trough of real water flowing down centerstage, in which the dancers splash, “swim,” and revel. (“The elements were important to Pina,” notes one dancer, “rocks, water, sand …” All were “obstacles (and) you had to get through them.”) In Bausch’s famous “Cafe Mueller,” the obstacles are dozens of chairs navigated by a pair of waiters attempting to control the couplings and uncouplings of a few sad, solitary denizens. (This sequence begins with dancers Dominique Mercy and Malou Airaudo gazing into and reminiscing over a model of the stage set in which the tiny human figures of the dancers magically appear.)

Mating rituals often appear in Bausch’s work as she grapples with issues of sex, gender and desire. (“What are we longing for?”film pina she continually asked her dancers.) Another common thread is youth vs. age; in one striking piece, lines of young and older dancers are juxtaposed dancing the same steps. Evidently, Bausch retained dancers in her company even as they grew older, choreographing for all ages. And she was eager to collaborate with and learn from her dancers; one recalls that she asked him to come up with a gesture to express joy, and was so tickled with the result, she created an entire scene around it. Another dancer says, “Pina was a painter … we became the paint.” (My only criticism of the film is that these dancers we get to know throughout are not better identified.)

Bausch died suddenly in 2009, at age 68, just before work commenced on this film. Yet there is no sense of tragedy, only celebration and gratitude for a life of amazing creativity. “Dance, dance,” Pina exhorts us at the final fadeout, “Otherwise, we are lost.”


★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>> 

A Film by Wim Wenders. An IFC Films release.
Rated PG. 103 minutes.

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