Timing is everything, particularly in the case of Wim Wenders’ film Pina.
Wenders, director of the critically acclaimed Wings of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club, first saw Pina Bausch’s Café Müller in 1985 when her dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, performed it in Venice. Wenders described his first encounter with Pina Bausch’s choreography to Alix Lambert at Filmmaker magazine:
Twenty-five years ago my girlfriend decided to take me to a double bill of two pieces by Pina Bausch. I resisted. I said no. I didn’t expect much and thought there were greater ways to spend an evening in Venice, Italy. But I caved in and went along ready to have a boring evening, and then the very opposite happened. 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. I didn’t know how she had done it. That was my introduction to dance theater and to Pina Bausch. I don’t think any other night in my life has changed me so much like that night.
Wenders arranged to meet Bausch for coffee during his trip to Venice and this was the beginning of their 20-year friendship. Wenders suggested the two make a film together, but according to the Pina website, “putting the plan into action failed for a long time because of the limited possibilities of the medium: Wenders felt that he had not yet found a way to adequately translate Pina Bausch’s unique art of movement, gesture, speech and music into film.”
By 2008 new developments in 3D technology persuaded Wenders that the time was right for a collaboration with Bausch. Pre-production on the film began in early 2009. After half a year of intensive work, and only two days before the planned 3D rehearsal shoot, the unthinkable happened: Pina Bausch died unexpectedly. She had been diagnosed with cancer just five days earlier.
Wenders described his reaction to the shocking news to Lambert:
I cancelled the film. Just pulled the plug. It just seemed completely obsolete. It was out of the question that I would continue without her. I just dropped the idea and announced to everybody that it was over.
My mind was changed by the dancers. It was the dancers who had continued to perform….Two months after Pina died they actually started to rehearse the pieces that Pina and I had selected for the film. That’s when they told me “We’re rehearsing them, and we feel that Pina is still in these, and who knows what can happen? It might be the last time we are doing this. You know how much Pina wanted to shoot this with you, how eager she was to see this new language that you told her about, so we really think you should reconsider your decision. We really think you should film. That’s what Pina would have wanted.”
And I realized that they were right. I realized that the decision to cancel the film had been wrong. Not in the sense of our 20 years, but I realized that the film was maybe even more potent for the dancers than for Pina, or her homage, because they really needed a way to deal with that loss. They were performing and they continued performing but they felt there was this huge hole and they had no outlet for it. They needed to say goodbye and they needed to say thank you, and me too. Together maybe, by doing this, that was a way to do so. And then we really decided to go for it, to start a film that would definitely be very different than the film that we had planned before.
I will confess that dance is one of my weak points. As I told a dance enthusiast and friend after a performance in New York, I’m not always certain that I have the language and knowledge I need to fully appreciate it. But he encouraged me to stop being so cerebral and to go with my gut. “You will know great dance when you see it,” he said. “Trust me. You’ll feel like your entire world had been altered.”
And this is exactly how I felt while watching Pina. The gestures may be abstract or surreal at times, and yet I understood them instinctually. These movements are confessional, raw, and intensely personal. It isn’t quite ballet, nor is it simply “modern dance.” Bausch fittingly called her art “Dance Theater,” a term that goes back to Weimar Republic cabaret of the 1920s.
Bausch’s work burrows into universal themes like brutality, fragility, desire, and personal relationships. There is sense of shared humanity in Bausch’s choreography, a feeling that is only reinforced by the international diversity of her dancers.
Even without Bausch’s presence, Wenders has created a breathtaking and sophisticated piece of cinema. He weaves footage of the company’s productions of Café Müller, Le Sacre du printemps, Vollmond, and Kontakthof with archival footage of Bausch, and short solo performances by the dancers. Partway through the film it becomes clear that these solo pieces are eulogies for Pina Bausch, the perfect way for the dancers to say farewell and give tribute to their mentor.
Bausch was known for her method of “questioning” her dancers during rehearsals. Her dancers, in turn, “answered not in words, but with improvised dance and body language.” The goal was not to focus on technique as much as to make the dancers “feel what each gesture means internally.”
“I am less interested in how people move than in what moves them,” Bausch told Valerie Lawson. “My dancers are all so completely different from each other,” she explained to Ismene Brown. “I don’t know if they are an extension of me, or I am an extension of them.”
The bond between Bausch and her dancers was clearly a deep one. “Dance for love,” the choreographer told one young artist. “Your fragility is also your strength,” she insightfully said to another.
In the film, one dancer recounts two important questions Bausch once asked her: “What are you longing for? Where does this yearning come from?” The question of yearning is really the central theme of Pina.
This is the entire point of dance—to say something with the body that can’t be said in any other medium. “I loved to dance because I was scared to speak,” Bausch told Lawson. “When I was moving, I could feel.”
The combination of Bausch’s choreography, Wender’s cinematography, the carefully-curated music, the arresting dancers and scenery, combined with the elegant costumes are unlike anything I’ve seen.
The dancers’ solo performances were filmed on location around the German city of Wuppertal, where the overhead railway, Tanztheater Wuppertal, and an assortment of chemical companies are the primary attractions. To see these dancers in their fanciful costumes performing in industrial facilities, in the countryside of the Bergisches Land, at road crossings, and in the Wuppertal Suspension Line is a memorable juxtaposition.
There are many striking moments in Pina, but two of my favorites are a scene where a dancer balances branches on his head, arms, and shoulders. In another, a dancer carefully piles chairs one on top of the other, while two other dancers artfully move their bodies through the towering stack of chairs, threatening to bring the entire structure down on top of them.
An interviewer once asked Bausch whose art work inspired her most. “To do a piece, nobody can help me,” she answered. “It’s only life that can help you.”
It was struggle, passion, fear, and joy that Bausch was most adept at expressing in her work. She was an artist of opposites: good and evil, dark and light, water and earth.
The stage was a canvas for Bausch, and she incorporated elements like earth and water to arresting effect in her work.
“The spaces created are poetic,” writes Norbert Servos, “with the outside often brought in, the stage expanded into a landscape. And the spaces are physical, affecting the dancers’ movements. Water and rain allow the body to be seen through the clothes; earth makes every movement a feat of strength; the dancers’ steps are traced in a layer of fallen leaves.”
Tanztheater Wuppertal performing a scene from Vollmond:
Using nature in unexpected ways jars both the audience, and the dancers, out of complacency. Here is Bausch describing her unusual stage designs to Ismene Brown:
I feel like certain things you put on stage make you look at them differently. They may be all around you every day, but they don’t mean anything. Suddenly you put them on stage and you take a new look at grass, or mosquitoes, or the noise you make when you walk – walking in water makes a different sort of movement from walking in leaves.
Sometimes things look dangerous but they are not dangerous at all. Some other things are very dangerous but don’t look dangerous at all
I like this sort of thing. And I like what it does to the dancers — it is a new experience that had an influence on your walk, your movement, your ideas also. And how you have to take care…
Some people like earth, and the moment they start working on earth they go with their whole body, they love it — but others think, ooh, earth is dirty, and they are at first scared, ooh, I’m going to have to fall down in this. it’s wonderful for them to find that you can enjoy this — that it gives such a different feeling in your head and in your body. And that is what the dancers do a lot — it draws different things from them. It’s nice. Because there’s something like a child in all of us.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of dance, I encourage you to see this film for the pure spectacle and emotional punch. Pina is nearly impossible to purge from your mind once you’ve experienced it.
“Pina Bausch’s dance theatre risks taking an unflinching look at reality, yet at the same time invites us to dream,” writes Norbert Servos. “It takes the spectators’ everyday lives seriously, yet at the same time buoys up their hopes that everything can change for the better. For their part, they are required to take responsibility themselves. All the men and women in Pina Bausch’s pieces can do is test out, with the utmost precision and honesty, what brings each and every one closer to happiness, and what pushes them further from it; they cannot offer a panacea. They always, however, leave their public in the certainty that—despite all its ups and downs—they will survive life.”
Pina is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon and Netflix. You can check out the soundtrack here. To learn more about Tanztheater Wuppertal and their performance schedule, please visit their website.
You can watch the trailer for Pina below…
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