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Written and Directed by: Wim Wenders

Starring: Pina Bausch, The Wuppertal Tanztheater

 

During the stages leading up to the filming of a documentary about renowned German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, she died suddenly and without a subject (as well as friend and collaborator) director Wim Wenders decided to cancel production. Apparently her dance company urged him to continue and together they made Pina, a beautiful and moving tribute to the life and work of an incredible artist.

The film is comprised almost entirely of Bausch’s dance company, of the Wuppertal Tanztheater, performing segments of her most famous pieces. Bausch’s choreographies are far from typical and Wenders, a director with an acutely tuned sense of the tragic and the urgent, is not here to simply point his camera at dancers on a stage. Bausch’s routines, at least those documented here, tend to focus on the desperate efforts of human beings in need, and the subtle forms of subversion that we apply to the most basic routine of our life in an effort to just keep going. Wenders, then, in every stroke and movement of the film, strives to capture the emotional core of Bausch’s work. The routines are all framed by wide shots that capture the entire stage, but frequently Wenders brings his camera in so close in order to highlight specific dancers and the spatial relationships formed by their shapes and movements. Many of Bausch’s dances involve the use of the elements, such as a routine early in the film which requires the entire stage to be covered in a thick layer of soil, so as the dancers perform their unsettling story of love and sex, their simple white costumes grow filthy. In another, a heavy rain begins to fall, soaking the performers and the stage, and quickly the sloshing and splashing of the water is a very present echo of the dancers movements. In an extrapolation of this, Wenders has the dancers perform many of Bausch’s routines in public areas around Wuppertal from metro cars and parks to escalators and a shipping yard. This underscores the contemporary cultural milieu at the heart of Bausch’s work.

Wenders offers no specific interpretation of Bausch’s work at all, instead focusing on interviews with the dancers that deal almost exclusively with each person’s individual interactions with Bausch. She was undoubtedly an inspiration and a hero to these dancers who speak of their time with her company like one remembers family gatherings. Most of the dancers make reference to Bausch’s tendency to address a single dancer directly so rarely that when she did everyone noticed. The talking-head portions of the film are unexpectedly beautiful, and Wenders plays the voice of a person ghostily over shots of them staring close-mouthed into the camera, I suspect, in sympathy for a dancer’s ability to communicate so clearly without words. Pina was shot in 3D, and though I did not have the opportunity to see the film that way, I suspect it would add a very evocative element to this already surprisingly effective film.

With Pina Wenders offers an incredible glimpse of a truly amazing artist, someone whose work, though steeped in its own history, transcends any amount of the typical or expected. Café Muller, Bausch’s routine which takes up the largest portion of the film, contains elements so absurd and so chaotic that it feels as though it is the externalization of the emotional lives of people who are sitting silently in a usual café as their hearts and minds spiral wildly out of control. Another, very short piece, involves a tall skinny man making his fingers dance up and down his waist, a miniscule dance which resounds with alienation and desire on an enormous scale.

Though there’s no telling what Wenders’ original documentary would have been, the tragic circumstances of Bausch’s death resulted in a beautiful combination of talents. Pina is a gorgeous and compelling documentary that captures some of the most innovative and artful dancing I have seen. Wenders’ makes many bold decisions in this film, relative to most documentaries, that I feel ultimately raise the film far beyond a typical dance doc and instead acts towards artistic intent akin to Bausch’s own work.

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