Pina

August 31, 2011
Pina

Wuppertal in Germany’s North-Rhine area is chiefly known for two things: the Pina Bausch Tanztheater, and its suspended monorail, the Schwebebahn. In Pina, his ground-breaking foray into the field of 3D documentary, Wim Wenders gives us a generous helping of both these attractions.

Tanztheater Wuppertal

Wuppertal Schwebebahn

It is a premise of Pina that dance, or bodily movement, is a language in its own right. Wenders takes this idea seriously, devoting long sequences to restagings of four of Bausch’s best known productions: The Rites of Spring (1975), Café Muller (1978), Kontakthof (1978-2008) and Vollmond (2006).

Many Australians will know Pina Bausch only by reputation, or through the work of Meryl Tankard, who danced with the company in Wuppertal before returning to Australia to start her own company in 1984.

Bausch began her rise to fame in 1973-74, when  appointed head of the Wuppertal ballet. She quickly changed the name to Tanztheater, to reflect the new direction she wished to take, incorporating a much greater freedom of expression.

Pina Bausch 1940 – 2009 Foto: Wilfried Krüger

The earliest productions proved controversial, with many dancers leaving because of Bausch’s unconventional approach. Soon, however, she found that the radical nature of her choreography began attracting worldwide attention.

Wenders came across Bausch’s work in 1985 and knew he had the makings of a film, but postponed the project for more than twenty years while pondering how to capture the company’s incredible physicality. The long-delayed documentary became a running joke between the director and Bausch, with the breakthrough coming in 2007, when Wenders found his solution in the new 3D film technology.

The last bitter twist came two days before Wenders was due to start filming in 2009, when his subject died unexpectedly, leaving all their plans in ruins. It took time to pick up the pieces and realise that it was imperative to make this movie while Bausch’s memory and influence were still fresh.

The result is a documentary unlike any other. It consists of long dance sequences, interspersed with brief, epigrammatic comments from the dancers. There is a small amount of historical footage, and surreal episodes where routines are performed in the streets and in the landscape – on footpaths, traffic islands and factories; by open cuts and lakes; in fields and industrial complexes. Sequences are filmed on the Schwebebahn, under the Schweberbahn, and on a platform over the Schweberbahn.

It is a way of demonstrating how Bausch’s idea of dance was completely incorporated into her philosophy of life. Should we need any further confirmation it comes from the dancers, who tell us – in a Babel of languages – just what Pina meant to them. She comes across as much more than a choreographer. She was a guru and a mother figure for her dancers. They speak about their experiences as a form of personal growth. Some of them have been with the company for more than twenty years, growing old while still performing. Indeed, the way Bausch incorporated the sense of human aging into productions such as Kontakthof was one of her revolutionary innovations. In the words of one dancer, it was like being old and a child at the same time.

Although there is no conventional biographical detail in this documentary, a composite portrait of Bausch emerges from these fragments. Anyone who ever thought that dancers are people who have cultivated their bodies at the expense of their minds will be astonished at the strange, poetic, often profound things they have to say. One says of Bausch: “She danced as if risen from the dead.”

Wenders presents a biography of Bausch that is performed rather than spoken. We see her through her works, and through the eyes of her closest colleagues. It is a thoroughly absorbing journey, even for viewers like me, who have no real knowledge of modern dance.

For Wenders Pina is a return to form after a long run of rather indifferent dramatic features. The problem was partly the standard set by his early road movies, such as Alice in the Cities (1973) or Kings of the Road (1975). These films were so simple and atmospheric they struck a new chord in the cinema, and were widely emulated. Somewhere along that road, Wenders lost his way, perhaps when he became friends with Bozo from U2. Understatement gave way to woeful pretentiousness. In this new film the spectre of Pina Bausch seems to have exercised a powerful corrective to Bonzo’s baleful influence.

As for the great gimmick of 3D, for the first time in my experience it didn’t feel like a gimmick. The most sincere compliment I can muster is that with Pina it is easy to forget that one is watching a 3D movie, with the extra dimension bringing the dancers to life while seeming perfectly natural. If they can find a way to dispense with the glasses the medium may yet become a new standard. Now that animations and dancers have been mastered, the only frontier that remains is for someone to make a 3D movie with a 3D script.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 20, 2011

Germany/France/UK. 103 minutes.