A Tribute to Pina Bausch
Published on December 22nd, 2011 | by Alexandra Marvar1
The first time I witnessed the work of Pina Bausch, it was not a live performance at a dance theater. Rather, it was on screen, in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her.” A woman stricken with grief flings herself through a café cluttered with chairs and tables. A man, his face contorted with a desperate yearning to help her, tosses chairs out of her way to clear a path as she swings blindly around the room. The exact meaning of this scene was perfectly obscure, but the emotional content was heavy and inescapable. The scene haunted me for nearly a decade before I saw “Café Müller” again, performed in Wim Wenders’s tribute to Pina Bausch, “Pina.” Almodóvar felt that Bausch’s 1978 ballet of rueful longing articulated the purgatory of “Talk to Her”‘s coma-stricken protagonists, so incorporating it into the language of the film–a testament to one of Bausch’s oft-quoted statements about her craft: “There are situations that leave you utterly speechless. All you can do is hint at things. That’s where dance comes in.”
Rendering dance on film has its challenges. They used to plague Fred Astaire, who allegedly lamented that there were cuts in his films, preferring instead to always follow the action. For dance onstage, each set of eyes in the audience is its own cinematographer, deciding how and whom to follow, when to close in on a face or a moment, when to take in the full panorama at once. But Wenders didn’t seem to struggle with capturing and containing the performances of Bausch’s creation in a manner engaging and true to form. It’s clear, in fact, that he had great fun placing them, at times, in environments outside the theater in the everyday world–dancers grace urban highway medians, precarious cliffs, vast stone chambers and commuter train cars.
Wenders has produced a healthy handful of documentaries since the 1980s, on subjects from Japanese fashion to “Buena Vista Social Club.” But while “Pina” will be counted among them, it doesn’t fit so comfortably in the documentary category. Bausch was among Germany’s most revered cultural icons, responsible for the creation of a new neo-expressionist form of dance, Tanztheater. But once the audience dons their 3D glasses (yes, “Pina” is meant to be viewed in three dimensions), nothing is uttered, even in post-script titles, about the details of Bausch’s life–her birth in 1940 in Solingen, Germany, her studies in Essen at the famous Folkwang School, her matriculation at Juilliard at age 18, and everything that unfolded in the fifty years to follow. “Pina” does not serve as a vessel for interesting facts about Bausch’s life and work. It is not arranged chronologically. And there is no plot to speak of. As for narrative, any longing an audience might have for that will be satisfied by Bausch’s work itself, which has been excerpted and collaged together among interviews with Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers (some in their fifties and sixties, still dancing professionally–a fun and unusual sight to behold) about what it was like to work with her. It is, simply and gracefully, a document of Bausch’s brilliant canon, beautifully captured.
Many of the performances were filmed by Wenders originally as part of an intended collaboration with Bausch, before her death from cancer in 2009. Her family and the company encouraged him to proceed with the project on his own, and the resulting film took the form of a tribute: “a gift, testimonial, compliment, or the like, given as due or in acknowledgment of gratitude or esteem.” A film for Pina Bausch rather than about her. And such a vivid celebration of her work, in which the dedication and determination of her company is so great that it’s hard to tear your eyes away, is the kind of tribute that I can imagine Bausch feeling completely honored to receive.
After seeing it at a festival, Cinespect colleague Charles H. Meyer told me with certainty: “There is no film that calls for 3D more than ‘Pina.’” At first I was defiantly skeptical–Does any truly good film need to be seen in an entire additional dimension to be effective? And dance documentary no less–it’s no sci-fi fantasy space journey. Why should it require a completely different cinematic medium? But Wenders’s use of 3D is as practical as any German could manage. He employs it with subtlety, to bring the audience into the theater–and into the drama of the dance performances–as Pina brought the audience in to her living work with her elaborate sets and the irresistible emotional reach of her dancers. In the film’s opening scene, the curtain rises to reveal a second curtain. The screen is filled with an empty stage. And along the bottom edge of the shot are rows of (empty) theater seating. The action unfolds from there, Wenders bending the boundaries between screen and stage to make his audience Pina’s audience as much as the technology of the cinema will allow.
“Pina” is a devastatingly sincere, elegant and unadulterated document of the love, pain, struggle, longing and joy explored by Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal throughout her career. Bausch once said of watching dance, “I want to feel something, as a person. I don’t want to be bored.” With “Pina,” Wenders has done right by her.