Dark, violent, even brutal, the radical dance works created by German choreographer Pina Bausch from the 1970s forward were nothing less than transformative, expressing through gesture, body, space, movement and sound the most profound and ineffable struggles of human life. The works also transformed entrenched ideas about dance as a form, and while they sparked questions in the U.S. about Bausch's political and ethical intent, the work was celebrated internationally.
A few years ago, German filmmaker Wim Wenders, a long-time friend of the choreographer, embarked on a film project designed to capture the power of Bausch's work using 3-D cinematography, but he gave up on the effort in June, 2009 when Bausch passed away suddenly. Pressed by the dancers in her Ensemble of the Tanztheater Wuppertal to continue the project, Wenders conceded, and resumed production. The result is Pina, a stunning film opening January 13th that not only renders the power of Bausch's work, but uses 3-D technology extremely well.
The film is not a traditional portrait: we don't learn biographical details about the artist or uncover her motivations. Instead, we experience the work through live performances, archival material and a series of dances performed by her troupe as a means of communicating something about Bausch. Pina is also not a dance film. Instead, it's a visceral experience that uses cinematic depth with care and precision. Here's the film's trailer:
The film shows live performances of major dances, including Cafe Müller, set in a cafe with tables and chairs. A woman in a nightgown wanders through the space with her eyes closed as if in a dream, while a man dashes just ahead of her, knocking chairs out of her way. At a later point in the piece, a man and woman embrace, but the woman repeatedly slides out of his arms and thuds down onto the floor. She's picked up by a second man and repositioned in the embrace, only to slip and fall again, over and over and over. The brutality of the action, which is also banal in its repetition, painfully captures the mindless repetitions we endure in everyday life, often with our partners.
A second dance, Le Sacre du printemps, which was first performed in 1975, is set on an open stage covered with deep, dark dirt. A group of men opposes a group of women who engage in what feels like an ancient battle made all the more visceral by the dirt.
A third piece, Vollmond, is a dazzling celebration of movement. The stage features a huge rock and a pool of water, and the dancers run, jump, splash and play, reaching a kind of frenzy.
Each of the pieces is breathtaking and indeed, they recall the efforts of '60s-era German New Wave filmmakers who managed to unite the bleak and the beautiful to comment on post-war experience.
Wenders was clearly the right person to make the film. He had met Bausch in 1985 when he'd gone to see some of her performances in Venice. In an interview on the Filmmaker Magazine site, he describes the experience of seeing Cafe Müller:
Something hit me like lightning and I sat there on the edge of my seat from the beginning. I found myself weeping like a baby, weeping through the entire piece, Café Müller, not knowing what was happening to me. I was completely unprepared for the language that Pina showed me that night. Nothing had prepared me. Nothing. I was overwhelmed and emotionally charged like never before. My brain didn't know what was happening. My body seemed to understand much better. I mean, it was a shock, because in 38 minutes - and that's as long as Café Müller lasts - this (for me) unknown woman, Pina Bausch, had shown me more about man and woman than the entire history of cinema. Without a single word - just with these sleepwalkers on stage. I had felt and seen and sensed things about men and women that I couldn't really put my finger on, but what she did I felt is essential and mind-blowing.
Bausch and Wenders had agreed a long time ago to make a film together, but Wenders hesitated because he felt that cinematic technology simply wasn't up to the task. With the arrival of new 3-D cameras, he finally felt that he could do the work justice. And he does.
Pina opens in Los Angeles on Friday, January 13 at the Landmark Theater and the ArcLight.