Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Performing Without Inhibition: Wim Wenders' Pina

"Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost."
                                             Pina Bausch

Watching Wim Wenders' hauntingly poignant and unique film about the choreographic genius of Pina Bausch, I was reminded that when I was younger I didn’t want to run away and join the circus; I wanted to join Tanztheater Wuppertal, the internationally acclaimed German dance troupe that Bausch directed from 1973 until her untimely death in 2009.

I saw her extraordinary dancers, culled from all corners of the globe, for the first time in 1984 during a rare visit of the troupe to Toronto. The piece was The Rite of Spring, and the stage was covered with spoil (dirt, peat and other detritus) that turned to mud soon after the dancers started marking it with the sweat of their extraordinary effort. Together with the approximately 2,000 spectators who thronged to the theatre that night, drawn by Bausch’s reputation as an award-winning dance artist, I watched spellbound from the edge of my seat, eyes wide open, a lump in my throat.

Wenders experienced a similar sense of wonder when he first encountered Tanztheater Wuppertal in the 1990s during a performance in Venice: “This was not theatre, nor pantomime, nor ballet and not at all opera, ” he has said. “Pina is, as you know, the creator of a new art. Dance Theatre.”

Pina Bausch
Bausch had taken over Tanztheater Wuppertal after training as a dancer with the legendary Kurt Jooss in her native Germany and also at New York’s Julliard School. Immediately, she began to single-handedly reinvent modern dance, reworking it as an emotionally potent art form using a unique and highly innovative combination of gesture, movement, speech and dramatic music. She has many imitators today, including an entire new school of European contemporary dance. But when she first broke onto the scene in the mid-1970s, the dance world had rarely seen anything like it. She was Isadora Duncan, Sergei Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes and George Balanchine rolled up into one – a choreographic maverick. I remember at one performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music bumping into Mikhail Baryshnikov in the lobby on the way to my seat. If you had any interest in dance, you were in the audience when Tanztheater Wuppertal came to town.

Wenders was also a huge fan, and in Pina he presents four of the works that Bausch routinely toured around the world: The Rite of Spring (1975), Kontakthof (1978/2000/2008); Café Muller (1978) and Vollmond (2006). She had personally selected them for the film which was meant to be a collaboration; but Bausch died two days before rehearsals for the film were to begin in Germany, temporarily halting production and forcing Wenders to rethink his project as more tribute than documentary. This he achieves through a uniquely cinematic recreation of the dances inter-spliced with solos newly performed by her dancers, and rare archival footage of Bausch in performance and in the studio working.

Wenders revives her spirit by making the dances feel fully alive, thanks in large part to his use of a 3-D technology which effectively incorporates the spatial dimension usually missing from other dance films. This, in large part, is what makes this film as trailblazing as its subject matter. The viewer can practically feel the three-inches of peat through which the dancers slog in performing The Rite of Spring, a work about the sacrifice of individualism to the tyranny of the group. It experiences vicariously the vertigo felt by blinded dancers in the cluttered room that is Café Muller, a work about longing and loneliness, and the shower of water soaking the dancers in Vollmond, a work about the search for love – a classic Bauschian theme.

Watching these polyphonic pieces again on the big screen, I am reminded that her work was as thrilling as anything that might be experienced under the Big Top: her dancers perform without inhibition, throwing themselves with abandon, doing high kicks in high heels and tight sexy dresses corseting them to the knees. In the theatre they used to leap from the stage to mingle with the audience, effectively smashing all walls separating art from reality. In the film, the 3-D format essentially accomplishes something of the same thing – drawing the spectator deeply inside the illusion, eradicating barriers, making it feel as real as one of Bausch’s shows.

As a result of the emotional intensity of their performances, in the film, as they did on stage, the dancers appear as ferocious as a cage full of lions. These polyglot dancers who come in all shapes, sizes, races, gender and ages rip through pretence; they roar with laughter and spit tears. They frighten with visions of their own vulnerability and uplift with breathtaking scenes of theatrical beauty that tame the beast within. They come across strongly as individuals whose quirks of personality helped shape choreography whose message was always, and in various ways, the pursuit of love.

Bausch, it was widely known, would ask her dancers questions, and they would answer her, not in words, but in movement; she would then harness that raw energy and phrasing, creating polyphonic works that were the human condition as presented through dance. In making this 103-minute film, Wenders adopts a similar method: asking the dancers questions which this time they answer as solo dances created for them by their mentor. These dramatic solos are crafted often from everyday gestures, the source of their humanity and emotional power. For the film, the dancers recreate them, but in a variety of different settings – from the desolate landscape of the Bergisches Land, and the lushness of a park, to a busy intersection, and the spare interior of an industrial building. Besides providing for arresting moments of cinematic dance freed from the confines of the stage, the underlying idea of these vignettes is to show how Bausch’s spirit lives on in her dancers, following them wherever they go.

But as much as a dance film Pina is, it is also uniquely what might be called a memory film. The dancers don’t just dance for him, they share with Wenders their memories of Bausch as they knew her behind-the-scenes, watching them with an incorruptible eye for beauty. Wenders trains the camera on their immobile faces, allowing their words to swirl around them as a voice over. It is an ingenious use of cinematic technique to communicate the essence of dance as a non-verbal yet emotionally conversant art form. The voice overs are in a variety of languages, representing a cross-section of nationalities that typically have made up Tanztheater Wuppertal in the 36 years that Bausch was at the helm – everything from Slovenian and French to Korean and Portuguese, all with English subtitles. They address the creative process and the uniqueness of the theatrical presentation. But, just as in a dance, it’s their bodies that do most of the talking.

Even when sitting still in a chair, out of costume, looking like the people they are when not on the stage, they radiate the emotional power that lies below the surface of their physical selves. The viewer hears their words, but it is the profound sadness in their eyes, the vacancy of their facial expression, that most commands attention. The feeling is of a tribe lost in the wilderness without a leader to see them home. It is a portrait of dance company in mourning.

This is how Wenders most effectively expresses the greatness of Pina Bausch: through the yawning vacuum she has left behind.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,


  1. Great to see Deirdre Kelly writing about dance again!

  2. Wow, sounds amazing! Is the film currently playing? In Vancouver? (she asked hopefully...)

  3. Answer: Yes it is, and I finally saw it yesterday and was absolutely blown away by the power and beauty of what I saw. I'm trying to find words to express my feelings, and I'm finding them all inadequate. An extraordinary experience. Thanks for alerting me to a film I otherwise might not have thought to go and see!