“It’s no fun, creating a piece,” says Pina Bausch, her sunken eyes and careworn face, veiled in cigarette smoke, testifying to the stress she’s describing.
“For years I’ve been thinking, ‘Never again.’ ”
The world-renowned German choreographer made those statements in Anne Linsel’s brief, poignant 2006 documentary, “Pina Bausch.” The film takes us inside Bausch’s work and offers a rare chance to hear the camera-shy artist speak, just three years before her death, and it will be shown as part of the Goethe-Institut’s series “Pina and Beyond: Contemporary Dance in Film.” The series, the first of its kind at the District’s German cultural center, begins Monday and runs through July 16.
Watching the Bausch documentary, along with the series’s other films about dance pioneer Mary Wigman and one of today’s leaders, Sasha Waltz, you can see why Bausch felt such melancholy.
Dancing for joy is not the German forte.
Serious subjects — emotional distress, the dehumanization of the body, the dehumanization of society — dominate these films. To be sure, there are also light, or light-ish, moments, but they are invariably complicated. For instance: A young woman dressed as a Teutonic Playboy bunny — wearing black rabbit ears, a black bustier and heels — scrambles down a hillside in a 1990 film that Bausch conceived and directed, “Die Klage der Kaiserin” (“The Complaint of an Empress”).
She’s kind of cute — but in a moment the gloom sets in, and the absurdity. The bustier is a few sizes too small for this long-waisted woman, so she’s falling out of the top and her tugging won’t fix it, and the hillside is really a muddy wasteland, so her pumps are sinking into glop that splats all over her when she stumbles, which is often.
She’s panting from trying to run in this sucking porridge, and she is plainly fearful, but of what? The inner demons, failed intimacy and apparent psychosis that plague the other characters we meet throughout the film?
Waltz’s “Koerper” (“Bodies”) trilogy, created and filmed between 2000 and 2002, is full of wit, but it’s dark and sharp as concertina wire. In the first section, also titled “Koerper,” one dancer smears paint in circles across her bare chest. Another slaps a price tag over the paint and announces in the bark of an auctioneer: “One hundred thousand deutsche marks. Art.”
Skin is generously on view in this 70-minute film, but the nearly naked bodies are rarely, if ever, in seductive poses. Their bare skin is an object, a prop, as dancers drag one another around by gripping fistfuls of flesh. Slim as these performers are, they find enough loose skin to pinch into pockets for bizarre illusions. Through some sleight of hand and folded skin, the dancers pull what appear to be red, rubbery veins and wiggling organs out of their own bodies.
These scenes are not funny, but they’re unusually clever. Throughout the film series you’ll see some of the most peculiar images you’re liable to find in a dance performance. A few of the other moments in Waltz’s work are so risque, unnerving and even brutal, I decided to stop watching them on my office computer, for fear that a colleague might accuse me of creating a hostile work environment.
What you learn from these films, through the uneasy depictions and intense drama, is how much a dancer’s body can dish out and what it can take. In Bausch’s “Cafe Mueller,” a man and a woman take turns slamming themselves against a wall and falling to the floor. In “S,” the second section of “Koerper,” the performers spew dark liquid from their mouths at one another and writhe in puddles of it. There is nothing mute about the body in performance here, even when the dancers aren’t shouting out the prices of their lungs and kidneys. Moments of silence, stillness or emptiness are so emotionally charged as to demand attention.
But along with their powerful feelings and physical displays, these works share another telltale aspect: a focus on thoughtful craftsmanship that is a point of national pride.
“There’s a meeting of passion and intellect in German work,” says Betsy Fisher, a University of Hawaii dance professor who has just released “German Lineage in Modern Dance” (Dancetime Publications), a DVD of her performances of solos by Wigman and other practitioners of ausdruckstanz, or German expression dance of the early 20th century.
“There’s such an attention to what you’re doing,” Fisher says. “It’s all very considered, and it had intent. It could be lighthearted, but not inconsequential.”
At the root of the anxious expressiveness on view in “Pina and Beyond” is the widespread influence of Wigman, the matriarch of German modern dance. In the early 20th century, Wigman, born in 1886, trained with Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, a pioneering Swiss educator who taught music through movement, and with Hungarian dance theorist Rudolf Laban. Then she struck out on her own. She believed the body was a conduit of spiritual truth; she thought ballet was a sterile dead end. As for music — who needs it?
“What madman claimed that dance is dependent on music?” Wigman asked. The style of dance she developed was heavy and raw, a mix of the primitive and the new — and it rapidly caught fire with audiences. In the 1926 version of her solo “Hexentanz” (“Witch Dance”), she sat on the floor, banged her heels and clawed the air. She wrote about how wonderful it was in this piece “to abandon oneself to the craving for evil.”
On the crest of her spreading popularity in Europe, Wigman toured the United States in 1930. Audience response was so enthusiastic that the next year she sent her disciple Hanya Holm to open a school in New York. Armed with Wigman’s philosophy and her own ideas, Holm became a revered mentor and one of the “Big Four” founders of modern dance in this country, alongside Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.
Back in Germany, Wigman’s legacy didn’t end up quite as glowing. She became enmeshed with the Third Reich, to a degree that makes her work a troubling subject still in her homeland. She submitted to Nazi control, even actively supported it, choreographing and dancing in a mass spectacle that opened the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Ausdruckstanz became a fascist tool.
Later, Wigman’s star sunk, as she tried to distance herself from Hitler’s regime and her art was seen as degenerate. Still, she remained in Germany until her death in 1973.
The documentary “Mary Wigman — My Life Is Dance,” which will be screened on the first night of the Goethe-Institut’s film series, dodges the prickly elements of her history. But it offers an instructive look at her work, still so potent, performed by Wigman and her students Dore Hoyer, Susanne Linke and Harald Kreutzberg, all notable choreographers in their own right.
Fast-forward to Bausch, born in 1940, the daughter of cafe owners. (She memorialized their establishment in “Cafe Mueller,” her best-known work — a stage scattered with tables and chairs becomes a metaphysical forest through which the dancers search for love and acceptance.) It was a guest at her parents’ eatery who suggested that the lithe, limber Bausch take up dance.
She eventually studied in New York with the British ballet choreographer Antony Tudor, creator of such tense mini-dramas as “Pillar of Fire” and “Lilac Garden.” In Germany, she danced with Kurt Jooss, a contemporary of Wigman’s. Jooss’s specialty was tanztheater, or dance theater, and this rich blend of movement, decor, props and narrative is what Bausch elevated to the world stage with her Tanztheater Wuppertal, starting in 1972.
Artists of all stripes — such as fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier and directors of stage and screen Robert Wilson and Pedro Almodovar — have spoken of the inspiration they drew from Bausch’s work, with its harsh landscapes of rocks and falling water, its loopy characters and surreal situations. Her death in 2009, at age 68, from lung cancer took everyone by surprise, especially filmmaker Wim Wenders, who was to start work on a movie with her. He eventually went ahead with the project, as an innovative homage in 3-D. The Goethe-Institut screened the film in January, and its popularity inspired the upcoming dance series.
“We know there is such a great scene in Germany of modern dance, and we can’t get the real performances here; there isn’t the budget for it,” says Sylvia Blume, the institute’s program coordinator. “So we wanted to give a taste of what’s going on in Germany and a view back to the history.”
The Oscar-nominated “Pina” will be shown on the film series’s final evening.
Sasha Waltz’s work introduces a more recent strand of German contemporary dance. Waltz, 49, studied as a child with one of Wigman’s students and trained with experimental choreographers in New York. Based in Berlin, she created the three-part “Koerper” as an examination of human life, beginning with the focus on body parts, then in “S” examining the effect of intimate contact and, finally, exploring how emotions register on the physical form in “noBody.”
Filmed in the Berlin theater Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz, “Koerper” is also a tribute to the state support that German choreographers from Wigman to Waltz have enjoyed. Bausch’s lengthy, exhaustively rehearsed pieces, her large and well-established company of dancers, the set designs that blanketed the stage floor with pink carnations or a thick layer of earth, the costume designs that called for suits, ball gowns and bustiers — such riches do not exist for American modern-dance companies.
Waltz’s “Koerper” is experimentalism on a grand scale, grandness that dance artists would never possess here: a dozen performers, a soaring architectural space, a stage floor that opens and shuts, a towering silk tent, multiple changes of costumes (some of them are mind-boggling, such as the wooden bell-shaped gowns that encase the dancers like giant buckets in “noBody”).
Along with a predilection for somber subjects and a pensive, highly sculpted style, material luxuries from a generous nation also tie these artists together. If Germany has bequeathed its dancers with a troubled past, it has also gifted them a stable present.
Monday , June 25, 6:30 p.m. “Mary Wigman — My Life Is Dance” (29 minutes), a 1986 documentary about the work of the dancer-choreographer who pioneered expressive dance, plus the first part of Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz’s 2000-2002 “Koerper” trilogy, exploring the body’s meaning (70 minutes).
Wednesday , June 27, 6:30 p.m. The second and third parts of Sasha Waltz’s “Koerper” trilogy: “S” and “noBody” (140 minutes).
Monday, July 2, 6:30 p.m. The 2006 documentary “Pina Bausch” by Anne Linsel (43 minutes), exploring the dance-theater choreographer’s creative process, plus a 1985 film of “Cafe Mueller” (55 minutes), Bausch’s most personal creation, concerning alienation, the desire for love and the will to endure.
Monday , July 9, 6:30 p.m. “The Complaint of an Empress,” Pina Bausch’s 1990 debut as a film director, is a collage of scenes set in and around the German city of Wuppertal, expressing the futility of human action and the quest for contact (99 minutes).
Monday , July 16, 6:30 p.m. “Pina,” directed by Wim Wenders, a 2011 tribute in 3-D to the choreographer after her unexpected death in 2009, with dancer interviews and excerpts from performances (100 minutes).
All films in German with English subtitles.
June 25-July 16 at the Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh Street NW. Tickets: $7 general admission; $4 for seniors, students and Institut friends. Purchase at the Institut or www.boxofficetickets.com/goethe. Information: 202-289-1200 or visit www.goethe.de/washington.