In 2009 German director Wim Wenders was preparing to make a documentary film about the great German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch when her heavy smoking caught up with her and she died within a few days of receiving a cancer diagnosis.
Wenders initially cancelled the project, but changed his mind when the dancers of Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch asked that the production go ahead as planned and be made as a memorial to her.
The result is a unique film that will transfix even viewers with no special interest in dance. Bausch is seen in it from time to time in older footage, overseeing rehearsals and uttering brief, vivid remarks about the power of dance. At one point she says that there are feelings that words are powerless to express, and that this is where dance comes in.
Again and again through the course of the film, the Wuppertal dancers, presenting the works that they had developed together with Bausch, make you perceive exactly what she meant. Wenders has structured it to allow the dancers to comment on their own experience with Bausch, and the way she coaxed qualities out of them that they hadn't realised were there.
This would sound like hokey New Age self-realisation cliche if the evidence of their sincerity were not so clear to see in the dance performances themselves.
The opening piece is Bausch's astounding choreography for Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. Of the dance interpretations of the ballet that I have seen, this is the only one that makes contact with the still shocking power of Stravinsky's score (the composer had seen enough productions that failed to do this that in his later years he said he preferred the piece to be performed as abstract music, without dance).
Germany/France, 2011 Colour/3D, 103 minutes Directed by Wim Wenders Available in 3D and 2D Blu-ray editions and on DVD in various regional codings
The filmed version begins with the stagehands covering the stage with a thick layer of loose brown soil, upon which the dancers will perform. In the dance that follows, Bausch follows Stravinsky's original scenario _ in prehistoric Russia a primitive tribe holds a sacrificial rite to the god of spring in which a virgin dances herself to death.
Although this outline is retained, her interpretation is very abstract. Dancers, divided into large groups often separated into men and women, perform the most violent gestures in unison, thrusting themselves about, jabbing themselves with thrusts of their elbows, throwing themselves on the ground and becoming covered with soil as the virgin to be sacrificed is chosen. The effect is of brutality and purposeful awkwardness, with a growing feeling of tension that presumably explodes in the concluding sacrificial dance. Unfortunately, that passage and a few other key passages _ the Dance To The Glorified One, for example _ are not included in the excerpts Wenders presents. But what we do see gets the film off to a mighty start, and as Bausch insisted, the most intense emotions it evokes are visceral but have no name that I can define.
Sometimes these feelings are evoked through a surrealistic or dreamlike mixture or expressive elements. A dancer appears on a cement platform in the middle of what appears to be a run-down industrial factory, holds up a platter with two big slices of veal on it, shouts "Das ist Kalbfleisch!", stuffs the meat into her ballet slippers, and dances beautifully, entirely on point, to the opening of the the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. Described this way, it sounds silly, but when seen it clobbers you with some unlikely alloy of the absurd and the tragic.
Other short numbers explore similarly eccentric but high-powered emotional territory. As Hazmat Modine's ultra-catchy song Bahamut bounces and wails on the soundtrack, an agitated man approaches a woman sitting in a chair. He goes through a repertoire of alpha-male acrobatic gestures and even drops his pants, while the woman looks on impassively.
He goes through the same routine with another woman, and then another, but they scarcely seem to notice him until he finally flees the stage in a panic.
Many viewers may have been introduced to the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch by the Almodovar film, Talk To Her, in which the two central characters meet while watching a performance of one of Bausch's greatest works, Cafe Muller (the music includes Janet Baker's famous recording of Dido's farewell aria from Purcell's Dido And Aeneas).
Parts of it are seen here, including the portion shown by Almodovar, together with reminiscences by some of the original members of the troupe, now well into their 50s and still performing, of the creation of the piece. Like most of the works seen here, it concerns loneliness and the difficulty of communication between people, especially lovers, but much of it is as mysterious as it is emotionally gripping.
The members of the Tanztheater are a highly cosmopolitan team. Their spoken reminiscences are heard in French, English, German, Slovakian, Spanish, Russian, Korean and Portuguese. Some of them are well on in years _ one number alternates young and elderly dancers who stand in a line and make grotesque unison gestures and grimaces (facial expressions are important in all of Bausch's works), seemingly across time. Again, the meaning is obscure, but it sticks indelibly in the mind.
The stamina shown by all of them in performing the almost seizure-like movements required of them seems truly superhuman.
My copy of Pina is a 3D Blu-ray set from Canada that also includes a 2D Blu-ray and a DVD version of the film. The 3D disc was one of the very few I've seen that made me glad that I had invested in a 3D player and TV. Wenders uses the technology to give an added feeling of sweep and dynamism to the performances. Many of the dances are staged out of doors, on Wuppertal's hanging electric public transport train and in industrial settings. The 3D helps to make the atmosphere of these diverse settings palpable.
The Criterion company in the US has just released the film in two editions, one containing 3D and 2D Blu-ray discs, the other a DVD. The release contains many extras not included in my Canadian set and is probably the way to go.
About the author
- Writer: Plalai Faifa