In documentary ‘Pina,’ a physical examination of choreographer’s legacy


Groundbreaking German choreographer Pina Bausch died of cancer in 2009, leading Wim Wenders to revamp the documentary he was filming into a tribute to her. (Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty Images)
February 2, 2012

“Meeting Pina was like finding a language,” gushes one of the dancers in Wim Wenders’s extraordinary homage to the late Pina Bausch. Wenders must have felt the same way about the revered German choreographer, for he’s lavished his 3-D documentary “Pina” with the power to suck you out of your seat and into a wordless world of almost primal eloquence.

What’s remarkable about this film is not only the view it offers of Bausch’s taut, often violent physical theater. That’s fascinating enough, and “Pina” offers a bracing immersion in it. The effect is so visceral, in fact, you might find yourself reflexively blinking behind those 3-D glasses as dirt flies under the dancers’ feet and sweat sprays off their skin. Bausch’s expressionistic brand of body language sends her dancers crashing into walls, careening around upturned furniture with eyes shut or plunging from great heights onto a stage flooded with water. Thanks to close-in camera angles, we feel as if we’re crashing and splashing along with them. (There is a lot of exhilarating risk-taking, but it’s not all perilous. Screwball comedy figures here, too.)

But equally as engrossing as the action are the emotional tones that Wenders captures. “Pina” is suffused with the thrill of discovery — for us and for Wenders, too, as if he found new expressive channels through his encounters with Bausch. The most obvious of these is the 3-D camerawork, which doesn’t just pump up the drama but creates a kind of emotional swoon, a whirling, sensory merry-go-round.

It’s both real and surreal. Although the dancers are rarely filmed in a theater — Wenders has them waltzing on street corners or flying into one another’s arms in a garden — they invariably seem to be inhabiting some magical stage set. Or a Joseph Cornell box: intimate, every element artfully selected, beautifully lit and framed.

But if discovery is here in abundance, so, too, is a sense of loss. That’s a subtler but more poignant note, and it turns this film into a kind of ghost story.

In interviews, Wenders has spoken about how seeing a performance of Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal years ago moved him to tears. An instant Pinaholic, he joined ranks with the avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson and countless other followers of Bausch, who was one of the most influential theater minds of our time. So many have copied the obsessive qualities of her work — the exhaustively repeated falls and collapses — and her imaginative use of simple props such as mounds of flowers, boulders or dirt. Or the chairs and tables in “Cafe Muller,” which we see not only in Wenders’s film but also in Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her.”

Wenders was so taken with Bausch’s dance-theater aesthetic that he had planned to make a documentary with her in 2009. Two days before filming was to begin, however, Bausch died — less than a week after having lung cancer diagnosed.

Bausch was 68 and actively working until the end. To those shaken by her unexpected death and wondering what would become of her company and her dances, it was a great solace when Wenders overcame his initial decision to shelve the film project. Urged on by Bausch’s dancers, he retooled the documentary as a tribute. No one would wish it this way, but in fact, he had a great story. Wistfulness and tension are present here in spades, and not only because of Bausch’s untimely death. The other emotional hook is the slower but no less inevitable disappearance of her art.

The clock is ticking on Bausch’s works, which will be difficult to maintain without their creator’s painstaking eye for detail. And without new works to generate excitement, the company is surely doomed. Her dancers, too, have a short shelf life: Many of them have been with Bausch for decades and are now quite a bit older than the stereotypically ideal dancer. Bausch’s taste for unconventional beauty was a hallmark that is, tragically, not shared by many in the performing arts or entertainment worlds.

It’s telling that we see the dancers moving only if they’re performing; otherwise, when they speak about Bausch, we hear their words in a voice-over while Wenders films them sitting utterly motionless. It is as if we’re reading their minds. And one conclusion is: What are they without Bausch but mute, still and locked up in their thoughts?

“Pina’s eyes turned everything we did into something even more beautiful,” says one dancer. Others tell us how she looked into their souls and that she knew them better than they knew themselves.

What she also knew: how to turn them into provocative and unpredictable artists. “Remember,” one dancer recalls Bausch saying before a performance, “you have to scare me!”

No wonder she inspired such devotion.

“Where does all this yearning come from?” Bausch marvels in an archival interview, as we watch one of her works in which one woman scuttles about desperately on her hands and knees, seemingly oblivious to the shovelfuls of dirt another woman is plopping on top of her.

Bausch’s art dealt with powerlessness, futility, loneliness — all the things her dancers seem to be experiencing as they talk about losing her.

“Dance, dance — otherwise we are lost,” we hear Bausch say at one point. But what will the dancers do now?

What will we?

Pina

opens Friday at AMC Loews Georgetown and AMC Loews Rio.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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