Pina Bausch was one of the most revered choreographers in the world when she passed away suddenly in 2009. Her style, descended from the Tanztheater school (essentially expressionism combined with dramatic elements), blew up in the 1970s, making her a driving stylistic force in the world of modern dance for four decades.
Director Wim Wenders planned to film a documentary in 3D about Pina before her sudden death. While he was resigned to abandon the project without his subject alive, he was convinced by her company of dancers to complete the film. Together, they collaborated to recreate Pina’s iconic choreography through the dancers who either originated or replaced Pina herself in the pieces. The result is one of the most original and mesmerizing single-subject documentaries to come out in years.
The film opens on an empty theater space with Pina’s handwriting on the back wall. Her voice begins and ends the film as the camera pans out to the empty audience. Suddenly, the stage is full. A dancer wearing an accordion and not much else is reciting a poem about the seasons in front of three layers of skrim. Dancers in formal attire begin filing in behind her, one by one, to repeat her tightly choreographed movements about the growth of grass through the year. They file past the first skrim, then the second, then the third, as the camera hovers just outside of their reach.
What Pina does better than any film I’ve ever seen is capture the style and energy of dance without relying on a thousand quick cross-cuts, reshoots, and unnecessary close-ups. Wenders wisely lets Pina’s choreography be the star. If the camera moves at all during a dance, it’s only to focus the eye on a subtle and distinctly Pina sequence in a performance.
Never is this style more effective than the first full dance sequence. The first big scene is a piece that dance fans will be familiar with: “The Rite of Spring.” It’s clearly chosen as one of the Pina recreations to introduce the audience to her style with a well-known piece. The erratic stomping and large group formations of the original controversial Modernist masterpiece are present. Everything else is Pina.
The stage is filled with loose earth shoveled out by stagehands and raked to a smooth finish. One by one, the female dancers come out on stage and begin to dance with the dirt. They grab it, the fall in it, they coat their bodies with it. Once dancer grinds her flesh into a red dress sprawled out on the stage, pushing dirt further and further away from her. She is the sacrifice to bring on spring. She will be forced by the leader of the men to dance until she dies so that life may once again grow from the dirt. When the evaluation begins, there is no doubt that Pina wanted the story to come through above all else. These women are on the verge of hysteria, dancing for the elder and praying he does not choose them.
From there, the numbers become more and more abstracted. In a recreation of “Cafe Muller,” three dancers perform on a stage, filled with chairs and tables, with their eyes closed. The all-seeing owners manipulate them one by one until they’re all broken. In “Iphigenie,” three generations of characters attend a dance where the men and women alike are evaluated for partnering purposes like horses before raw sexuality overtakes the radical rock music they dance to. In “Full Moon,” the dancers explore the elements of stone, water, and air, as they push, splash, and throw each other into stranger and stranger scenarios. To Werner’s credit, by the end of the film, the large recreations make sense.
A particular stroke of genius in Pina is taking the choreographer’s smaller numbers outside of the theater. The soloists–all interviewed in voice over as they stare out, either impersonating Pina’s stoic gaze or remembering her life in tears or joy–perform on trains, subways, parks, public swimming pools, even grassy medians on busy roads. Pina’s work is so powerful that you actually see the non-subjects in the film first look with confusion at the dancers, then lose the ability to look away at all.
Pina’s work is broad and dramatic, but there are recurring elements that become the language of Pina. First is the use of nature. One dancer comments on how every piece insisted on the feel of natural elements. They performed on sand, dirt, stone, water, and more to get her vision across. Second is a raw sexuality defined by the individual. The women all perform in dresses with no bras on, while the men typically strip down to tightly tailored trousers and wide open shirts. They obsess over their own bodies at the expense of making real connections with others.
Most distinctive of all (and the reason Pina’s choreography works so well in 3D) is the self-manipulation of the body. These dancers are forced to literally push themselves around. Their bodies cannot go into motion unless their own arms or legs force them. The left arm cannot move until the right hand grabs it and throws it away from the body. Pina’s choreography is an explosion reaction of the physics of human life and is mesmerizing even when it confuses the audience out of context.
Pina‘s only fault is trying to show too much of Pina’s work. Early on in the film, an interview always precedes these out of theater dance moments. The dancer explains what lesson they learned from Pina that impacted their performance in that solo. By the halfway point, there are interviews with dancers where they say nothing, giving the audience no context for what they see in that field or that factory. Even worse, the last two main dances are so fragmented by elements of other dances that you can easily lose the context of those numbers to the unexplained fragments surrounding you.
The breadth of work and the visual style of Pina overcomes any confusion the direction causes with artistry. Pina Bausch’s work was extraordinary. Her dancers revered her because she insisted on bringing out the best in every performer in ever production. She did not cast aside dancers when they reached the ancient dance age of 30-something, but embraced their changes and increased limitations to expand the artistry of dance. Pina is a worthwhile tribute to a visionary artist that deserves to be seen in theaters.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.