Pina: A Review

Pina – Dir: Wim Wenders; *ing: Pina Bausch (archival footage), the dancers of the Tanztheater Wuppertal


Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost

Back in the 1950s, über dancer-choreographer Gene Kelly fulfilled one of his most cherished ambitions – to make an all-dancing dialogue-free film which showcased the talents of some of the leading screen dancers of the day, in highly stylized choreographed set-pieces. The film was called Invitation To The Dance and was a gamble that Kelly lost big on when it flopped disastrously. Watching it today, one becomes sharply aware that, despite flaws, the film was well ahead of its time, and probably better suited to a world which, in the years since, has gradually done away with cinematic and artistic barriers, opening up many more avenues for those whose goals lie beyond the tried and expected. And in this world, a film like Pina makes perfect sense.

Pina began as a collaboration between German filmmaker Wim Wenders and his compatriot, acclaimed modern dance choreographer and pioneer of the Tanztheater style, Pina Bausch. The film was to be an exploration of the latter’s artistic preoccupations as a creator and teacher of contemporary dance. As it happened, Bausch died suddenly before production could begin, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer. So what Wenders and company (Bausch’s team of dancers) have created subsequently is a tribute to their fallen friend, but also simply a celebration of the art of movement itself, in its myriad forms – fluid, staccato, sensual, violent, joyful, ominous. Interspersed with archival footage of Bausch talking about her work and rehearsing her dancers, the company performers reminisce about their mentor, remembering her style of working, and drive to push at the boundaries of her chosen discipline.

But the major part of the film (and its main attraction, at least for the lay person) is, of course, the dancing. Be warned though, this is neither Chicago nor Sheila Ki Jawaani. Bausch took classical elements and melded them with modernist sensibilities to create pieces whose tone and physicality is challenging and unpredictable, playing with notions of decorum, repetition, and male-female interaction.  Filmed largely inside the Tanztheater, and also in exterior locations around the city of Wuppertal (including some remarkable moments filmed inside the carriages of the city’s elevated railway), Pina features extracts from four of Bausch’s most famous and well-received dance pieces, beginning with ‘The Rite of Spring’, which has two groups of dancers performing to Stravinsky’s famous score on a stage strewn with earth, the mood dark and disquieting. ‘Kontakthof’ is more playful, delving into circumscribed ideas of gender and age, while in ‘Vollmond’ the stage is flooded and the dancers centered around a large, imposing rock. But perhaps the most striking of the pieces is Café Mueller, unsettling though it is with its dream-like quality and cast of strange characters, some of whom appear to be somnambulists.  It is here that Bausch’s unique talent for visualizing the unsaid and unheard is brought to life most forcefully.

This is not for the artistically faint-hearted of course, especially since none of the pieces are put into context or (cringe!) ‘explained’, and are ‘modern’ in every sense of the word, take it or leave it. Wenders, who has ventured further and further into documentary territory in recent years, films it all beautifully, making the experience truly cinematic by taking his camera where a theatre audience cannot go. His eye for what our eyes find aesthetically pleasing is almost infallible, and he puts it on film with both reverence for Bausch and passion for what she created. So if you’re looking for a film evening that’s off the beaten track, Pina provides a sumptuous pas de deux.

Cult:  Wings of Desire (1987) – Wim Wenders’ sublime tale of angels amongst humans was turned into bilious Hollywood schmaltz City of Angels.

Current:  Undefeated – The winner of this year’s Oscar for documentary feature, the category in which Pina was also nominated.

Coming Attraction: Untitled Architecture Documentary – Wenders’ upcoming project is very hush-hush; all we know is it’s about architecture. And it’s in 3D. And if anyone can pull it off, it’s him.

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