The capacity to experience and express emotion is what makes us uniquely human. Because dance utilizes our own physicality as a means of expression, it is often the purest representation of our ever-shifting emotional landscape. Wim Wenders’ new film Pina, a tribute to the late dance icon Pina Bausch, provides a miraculously clear rendering of this expression, and in doing so reminds us of our own shared humanity. Already nominated for an Oscar in Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Language Film, Wenders’ creation is much more than a film about dance. Pina’s appeal lies in its genuine portrayal of passion, of people, and most of all, of life.
Bausch, the life and soul of her company Tanztheater Wuppertal, was an innovator of dance theater, a form not precisely one or the other but an always dramatic amalgamation. Famous for her unflinching portrayal of the human condition, she pioneered a now-commonplace choreographic process based on asking pointed questions of her dancers and creating movements from their recountings. She was also known for heightening the significance of everyday occurrences through repetition, and creating works with highly unconventional sets, like floors covered entirely in soil or carnations, or even a pool of water in one instance. Wenders’ film takes all of these elements and displays them tenderly and brilliantly, capturing the essence of both Bausch’s work and spirit.
The film focuses on four of Bausch’s most iconic pieces, interspersing scenes of them with interviews and solos by the Wuppertal dancers and archived footage of Bausch herself. Each work immerses the viewer in its unique world; the 3D technology used to shoot the film makes it all-the-more absorbing. For the dancers’ individual segments, the locales are as diverse as the emotions on display. From lush gardens, bustling intersections, and trains winding through Wuppertal, the dancing is at turns absurd (a goofy tap dance in the midst of a hide-and seek game), ecstatic (a series of leaps over chairs arranged on a verdant hill), sensuous (a luscious, caressing duet), and desperate (a woman’s bleak struggle while tethered to the corner of a stark room). Wenders intensifies the effect of these wonderfully articulated solos by taking the movement out of the studio/theater and placing it in both mundane and picturesque locations. The captivating power of each dance lies in how deeply human they are. The precise movements almost become superfluous; these are simply people, being people the only way they know how. It becomes pure emotion, and essentially life, exquisitely rendered.
One of Bausch’s earlier works, Rite of Spring (1975), is featured near the beginning of the film. In this violent and tension-riddled ritual, the dancers’ shuffling is muted by the soil-covered floor, but their panting and terrified gasps are accentuated with close-ups. Perspective is everything; when each girl sacrificially offers herself to the male leader, we see it from his perspective; his hand reaching out from behind us to grab the doomed maiden feels like it could be our own. By placing the viewer in the midst of the dance, Wenders has given us a never-before-possible view of Bausch’s work.
Rite couldn’t be farther from the aloof, somnambular feeling of Café Müller (1978), set in a white-walled restaurant littered with empty tables and chairs. Characters stumble in and out; some of the women keep their eyes closed for the entirety giving their movement a fumbling, but curiously liberated quality. Though the tone is more sedate, there’s still human drama in abundance. An imposing man deconstructs a couples’ embrace, placing the woman in the man’s arms where he continues to drop her; she stands and throws her arms around him again with increasing urgency until the speed becomes relentless. It makes you wonder if they’re actually trying to stay together or if they’re just helplessly stuck in this strange cycle.
Kontakthof (1978) features men and women clad in suits and evening dresses, meeting in a barren music hall. In the last decade, Bausch restaged this work twice, once with teenage dancers, all over the age of 14, and once with older dancers, ages 65 and up. Wenders has melded all three casts together, putting the varying ages in sharp relief. Their twitchy preening and posturing distorts the normal social rituals of a formal dance and seeing the same movements on a variety of ages lends more gravity to each gesture.
The most recent of Bausch’s works in the film, Vollmond (2006), features a striking set: a hulking boulder and a sheet of water raining onto a shallow pool. There are moments of pure joy and exhilaration. A youthful water fight emerges, a man leaps fearlessly from the boulder, and dancers splash through the pool as droplets extend each movement’s trajectory. Of the four pieces, this involves the most technical dancing, and the Wuppertaltroupe delivers it with both eloquence and abandon.
For these four works, we know a bit more of the context and can grasp their concept. The short solos by each dancer, however, are more ambiguous: are they bits of the dancer’s own choreography created in memory of their beloved director, or are they favorite excerpts of Bausch’s works? The point is largely irrelevant, because they are enchanting either way. Bausch’s influence on all of her dancers is evidenced in their movement; they bare their soul, as it seems she taught them how to do, in tribute to her memory.
Threaded throughout the film, a parade of dancers repeats gestures for each of the four seasons. Spring, summer, autumn, and a joyous little shiver for winter, over and over again. In various scenes, they wind across a stage, down a staircase, and, finally, the closing image, along a ridgeline dotted with sculptures. All smiles, this gallant processional seems barely able to contain their excitement at sharing their movement and Bausch’s legacy. As Bausch’s famous words “dance dance…otherwise we are lost,” play across the screen, nothing could seem closer to the truth.
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