Remembering ‘Pina’

When I look at photos of myself dancing, I feel a deep dissatisfaction. Is it the lighting? Is it the wrong moment? Or is it the lack of feeling? How can one express that moment between two people, two people who love dancing so much it becomes a way of life? And does that life of dancing stop after a certain age?

Pina Bausch wasn’t a person who just feels music and danced socially like myself and friends. She took people, generations in different nations on a journey of movement. How would she want to be remembered? The 3D documentary entitled simply “Pina” is Wim Wenders attempt to sum up the life of this influential and brave dancer. Rather than a dissection or critical analysis, the documentary is an intimate, loving portrait of an artist. And it is also Germany’s official Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language Film. And not only does it cover the language of movement, but also German, English, Russian, Italian, French, Slovenian, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese. The movie opens in New York on Friday, 23 December 2011, but will come to Los Angeles in January.

Director Wim Wenders originally intended to collaborate with choreographer Pina Bausch on a 3D film about her life as a dancer. Wenders was friends with Bausch and they had always planned on making a film of her work, but how? In Cannes, Wenders had been inspired by the concert movie “U2-3D.”  In 2008, Wenders and Bausch selected pieces from her repertoire and began planning, but after about half a year of work and only two days before a 3D rehearsal shoot was scheduled to begin, Bausch died (30 June 2009).

Wim Wenders almost abandoned this joint project, but dancers everywhere can be glad that he did not. What we see is the ghost of Pina Bausch and the reality of who she was as a dancer in every gesture and movement of her ensemble, the people who she had chosen and some had been with her for decades. That should give hope to dancers for whom, in more traditional companies, have a very short creative career dancing. This ensemble helped her develop these works, to feel, to react and to do so together.

Consider “Kontakthof” which features performers over retirement age–men and women and not all thin. Look at the character their movement has and how interesting their faces are. They know a bit about life and the tug of war between men and women, a topic of many of Bausch’s pieces.

Born Philippina Bausch during World War II (1940) in Solingen, Germany, she studied ballet, trained under German Expressionist dance choreographer Kurt Jooss and, in 1960, studied at Juilliard School in NYC. After performing at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the New American Ballet she joined Jooss’ new company in 1962.

What made her famous though was her own company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. She took dance outdoors by bring the world outside inside. Dancers hindered by tables and chairs of what seems to be a cafe in her 1978 “Café Muller.”  Parts of this piece appeared in the 2002 Pedro Almodóvar movie, “Talk to Her.” (Bausch had previously been in the 1983 Frederico Fellini film “And the Ship Sails On.”)

Then there’s the 1975 “Rite of Spring” where red earth is part of the special effects. The dancers become dusted and then muddied with red earth that sticks as the sweat builds up.

These two dances along with “Vollmond” and “Kontakthof” are included in what is billed as one of the first European 3D movies and the world’s first 3D art house film. “Vollmond” which I believe means full moon brings a large pile of rocks on to the stage and the dancers cavort on and about it splashing water in a way that is as instinctive as a mischievous little child in galoshes but more artistically choreographed. “Kontakhof” seems to recall those dreary dances where one wants to dance but must, because of social conventions, wait to be asked or to ask, sometimes without joy.

Wenders uses 3D to take us behind the scenes and create a surrealistic relationship between the conceptualization process and the actual dance. We are viewing a model of the stage and we then enter and are part of the audience or within the actual production. According to the press notes, the documentary was filmed in three stages: autumn 2009, and spring and summer 2010. The first stage used live full-length performances with an audience at the Wuppertal Opera House for “Cafe Muller,” “Rites of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps) and “Vollmond.” The cameras were positioned between the dancers so the camera “literally dances with them.”

“Kontakhof” was filmed without an audience with three different casts–the ensemble of Wuppertal Tanztheater, men and women aged between 65 and 80 and teenagers where the youngest was 14.  Public spaces were also used for solo and pas de deux.

Wenders also asks us to regard dancers as portraits, not allowing them to be filmed speaking, but instead using what we assume are their own words and voices in a voiceover. The dancers, witnesses to the life and work of Bausch, become pictures in our minds and not animated people. This does allow one not to be disappointed with their real voices and appearances while they are speaking. Who hasn’t be shocked and frustrated when the imagined voice of a heroic character doesn’t match the reality of the dancer’s voice? How many careers died because of the talkies?

Wenders has said of Bausch, that “she allowed us, her spectators, to share her look and open our eyes for ourselves and the hidden language inside of us.” Bausch had it all. She married (set and costume designer Rolf Borzik) but was widowed in 1980. She then formed a loving partnership with Ronald Kay. They had a son, Salamon.

The late Merce Cunningham wrote, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

Pina Bausch had a more direct, urgent saying, “Dance, dance or we are lost.”

Wenders “Pina” skillfully uses the 3D medium, allowing us to become part of the ensemble and yet remain in the audience, weave between the reality of planning with models and small figures to the projected imagination that evolves into a new reality on stage.

We’ll never know what this could have been like with Bausch working with Wenders in the wings and there’s no point in asking “what ifs” when this documentary expresses so eloquently the movement, style, passion and creativity of one woman and her fellow dancers.

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