“Dance…dance…”: A review of Wim Wenders’ documentary tribute ‘Pina’

Pina Courtesy of Berlinale 2011 (all copyright belongs to the owners of the image.)

Pina Bausch was an extraordinary woman, and Wim Wenders is determined to show the world just how much so. In his latest film, Pina (2011), the director known for 1987’s Wings of Desire, and Buena Vista Social Club (1999) interweaves archival rehearsal footage, filmed dance sequences, narrated voiceovers and long, contemplative shots of sensuously expressive movement all filmed in ground-breaking 3D, to tell the story of a woman who had a perceptible impact on everyone whom she encountered, through the art and poetry of experimental dance theatre.

In this tribute (nominated for this year’s Oscars in the documentary category, but beaten out by underdog football doc Undefeated), the German-born choreographer is remembered by the ensemble of her dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, and by all who knew her, as someone who used dance to examine the depths of the soul, hers and others. Through her art, she stripped away the layers of personality in order to reveal the raw truth beneath.

One of the interview subjects for the film notes, “Honesty, what is that? Pina taught us to stand for what we do, every gesture.”

Bausch is remembered as a mentor, a guide, an example, and a medium through whom emotions could be channelled and freely expressed without fear.

“Pina always wanted to bring out the best in her dancers,” notes one lady who muses that having worked with Pina for 22 years, Bausch had seen her dance more than even her parents had. “The way Pina worked, we could bring out all our qualities.”

Bausch is further remembered as a painter, using the dancers as the paint to reveal her artistic vision. The cinematography expands this visual metaphor, using the framing, colour and contrast to draw in the viewer. In many scenes, the movements of the dancers and the flowing dresses worn by most of the women are contrasted against urban, natural or industrial backgrounds. For example, the flood-lit interior of a subway tunnel, a busy city street corner, a park lined with stone steps, the brown dirt of a dusty hillside.

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More than all of this, though, Bausch is remembered as a friend, and so much more.

“We danced and laughed all the time,” one lady recalls. “You always felt more than human working with Pina.”

Another subject notes further on that Pina did not just demand the best they could offer physically, but she sought to discover what was hidden behind their psyches.

“Pina was a radical explorer,” she says. “Looking deep into our souls, asking, where does this yearning come from?”

The film takes an interesting approach to the subject interviews. Rather than your usual talking heads, each person remembering Bausch is shown on camera either looking silently into the camera, or glancing away contemplatively, while their voiceover (in the several different languages spoken by the members of the dance company) narrates recollections of the powerful intensity and talented vision of the famed choreographer. This way of leaving the camera to remain on them unspeaking allows for silent emotions to flit across each of their faces, almost as though they themselves are listening to their own recollections.

Also, perhaps as a way of having the focus remain on the woman alone, no names are given for any of the interview subjects during the film, aside from the moments they say their own names when remembering some piece of advice imparted to them by Bausch. The names are shown in the end credits, however.

The film barely touches on the fact of Bausch’s death, despite this being the unspoken premise of the entire documentary. But this omission gives a sense that the focus should be on her life and not her death, a celebration of life, and love – and even pain, but not death. In the world of Pina Bausch, dance is life, and as she says herself in a voiceover towards the end of the film, “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.”

Azusa Seyama, Vollmond, Copyright Jong Duk Woo

Technically, Pina is gorgeously shot and seamlessly edited from a variety of sources, including rehearsal footage, archived performance videos, and scenes shot by the filmmaker himself. In one of the opening scenes, the audience is shown the interior of a theatre as crews fill the stage with dark brown soil and rake it into a mat covering every spare inch. The next shot is a segue into the performance itself, in which a group of young female dancers clothed in white, shift-like dresses interact with an apparently sleeping young girl, who lies on a vivid red cloth. As the performance progresses, one sees the young girl wake up, and recoil from the red cloth, in such a way as to cause the other young women to draw back from it as well. Then, a group of bare-chested young men dance onto the scene, and one of them gradually draws near to the red cloth lying on the ground in front of the restlessly dancing young women, and lowers his body over it. One comes to realize that the red cloth represents a number of things – passion, pain, fear, and something like the burgeoning sexuality experienced by a young girl on the verge of womanhood. The young man’s awed, yet irresistible attraction to it, and to the young girl to whom it belongs, represents something so much more, and with the movement of the camera following the tensely sensuous movement of the dancers, it is hard to look away from something half-understood, yet which leaves a vague sense of discomfort with the viewer. It is only when the scene cuts away to shaky video footage of the rehearsal for this same performance that one breaks out of the grip of the scene to realize that it is just that, a performance.

“There are situations that leave you speechless, you can only hint at things,” says Bausch in an archival interview. “That is where dance comes in.”

With Bausch, it seems that dance was not something people did when the music came on. Rather, it was performance art, where the dance is elevated above the music, not dictated by it, but rather by the emotions flowing through the people dancing with wild abandon, caught in the moment of the performance. One woman remembers her shyness when she first began working with the company, and how the advice eventually given to her by Bausch was,

“You just have to get crazier!”

Another dancer, a young man with soulful eyes, remembers her advice to him when he first tried to understand his own motivation as a young dancer. She told him,

“Dance for love!”

Love is something that was a recurring theme in all of Bausch’s work. Unrequited love, unbreakable love, unconventional love – in the first dance sequence in the film with spoken words, a young man in loose dark clothes cries out periodically, “Andre!” as his writhing dance takes him from one end of the space to the other, down to the ground, back up again, and with a flying leap, into the arms of a tall, sombre young man in a light blue suit. In another, a woman in a red dress dances frantically around her lover, trying to keep him from leaving her as he repeatedly unwinds himself from her embrace and lays her on the ground, at first gently then with less and less restraint until he breaks free and flees, with her running after him out of the camera’s frame. Another sequence has a woman in a flowing dress walking unsteadily as a young man walks gingerly by her side, deep concern in his eyes. Every other step or so, she slumps gently to the side and he pushes her back onto her feet, only to go around to her other side to catch her when she slumps that way, and push her back onto her feet again.

“All of her pieces were about love, and pain, and beauty and loneliness,” says one of her long time collaborators.

These themes are apparent in many of the dances, some whimsical, some passionate, some still, dark and tortured, but always visually compelling and emotionally charged.

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The music used in this film is evocative, and fluidly appropriate to each scene. Most of it is the songs used within the performances themselves, ranging from French love songs, to German ballads, to Spanish odes to the night, to a hip hop-inflected song used in one filmed stage performance where a young man in the company notes that Pina had asked him to come up with a movement signifying “joy” – and then created a whole new scene around it. As haunting as the performances themselves, the songs work with the incredibly technical, yet sensuous dances to create a visual and aural experience that transcends them both.

Pina, stitched together as it is from several different sources, is not a chronological account by any means. But in the way it looks at, and recreates her life from the perspective of the people in her dance company – who are not just her co-workers and fellow dancers, but her very family it seems – it still tells a story. In between the myriad scenes of her dancers’ performances, Bausch is shown dancing herself, watching enraptured as her dancers bring her vision to life, directing scenes, and is heard explaining the encompassing meaning of dance in her life, in all its various aspects. In one of the final scenes which shows the interior of a theatre and the camera focusing on the screen at the front (a meta moment for sure), there is a black and white image projected of Pina Bausch, in flowing pants, dancing alone, and then this fades out gradually with the last image being her hand waving goodbye.

At its heart, Pina is a beautiful and moving elegy by Wim Wenders for a visionary performance artist, and visual love poem to the art of dance itself, performed by those who knew and loved Pina the most.