This extraordinary documentary Pina by German filmmaker Wim Wenders (justly nominated for an Academy Award) on the choreographer Pina Bausch, his countryman, near-contemporary and fellow visionary, was a long time in coming. An artistic collaboration had been planned for some time but in an instance of epic bad timing, Bausch died just two days before filming was to have begun, having been diagnosed with cancer only five days previously.
The movie is thus haunted by the specter of death and of aging, compounded by the fact that many company members had been with Bausch for twenty-plus years. This theme is stated in the opening piece (returned to periodically in the duration of the movie), in which a long line of dancers chants Fruhling…Sommer…Herbst…Winter as they snake along a train platform, behind and onto a stage and later, on a wind-blown hilltop.
The Tanztheater German expressionist influence is clear in their affects, which ride the line between ecstasy and despair. Are they smiling in the face of death, or ruefully acknowledging that life and death march on regardless?
The theme is made more explicit in Kontakthof, a piece that appears to be set at a high school dance, with the camera trained on an impossibly youthful and fresh girl amongst a line of fellow dancers. Several spins later and she is middle aged, still beautiful but undeniably ravaged. More spins and she is a senior citizen. The shot widens to take in the entire ensemble, all aged 65 and older, all dressed in prom attire and fronting and flirting—the women snapping their bra straps and sucking in their tummies—like a girls vs. guys showdown in Grease.
And of course the theme of seasons and their passing comes to the fore in Bausch’s best known work, set to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring), which she staged on a field of peat as an earthy, primal collective ritual that, like the annual springtime Lottery in Shirley Jackson’s story, ends in brutality and communal sacrifice.
Wenders applies his considerable filmmaking artistry, elevating this movie from historical record or biodoc to its own art form. It’s not just the intimacy that the camera distance affords (at times it feels, sometimes discomfitingly, as though we are onstage with the dancers, or that they’re dancing directly to us), nor the unusual depth of field from the movie’s use of 3-D technology.
It’s also the way he glides between stage and real world settings—train stations, aboard trams, city street corners, the side of a busy road, a magical glass pavilion in a forest glade, a stunning concrete fortress of socialist constructionist aesthetic, a strip mine surrounded by improbably beautiful countryside, a gigantic ancient factory—which burst open the choreography in unexpected and often delightfully funny ways. Dancers perform in full view of tram passengers and as cars whiz past, often to comical effect.
Wenders underscores the nonverbal aspect of dance with a nontalking twist on the standard documentary talking head. Various Tanhauzer dancers look directly at the camera and emote silently, while their thoughts on Bausch and her work play in voiceover in their native French, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, German and other languages and are translated for us in subtitle.
Wenders also plays with the theatricality of Bausch’s ethos in numerous instances of theater within theater. We watch an audience watching the dancers, or see dancers watching a maquette of a theater in which, thanks to movie magic, dancers are dancing.
A signature of Bausch’s choreography is its fractal-like repetitions and reversions of movements and the film does the same in its recursions to Bausch’s major dances, often in different locales or from different viewpoints and in progressing emotional states, from impish to desperate to tender. In this way it also mirrors the way Bausch’s work traverses the juxtaposition between grit and glory, the banal and the beautiful.
The camera’s surrealism magnifies the surrealism of Bausch’s work, yet in the same deadpan and matter of fact way that posits that in fact rather than being beyond the real what her choreography reveals is the real when all the rest is stripped away. It is at these moments that one feels Bausch’s work to be essential. As she said: Dance, dance. Else we die.