Between “Pina” and a hard place 4

Dance · Film · Reviews

Heavy-hitting filmmakers are turning their cameras on dance and it’s an honor. It’s also a puzzlement, to the dance world. It surprises us. We thought that the only folk attending dance performances were fellow dancers, parents, and dance critics. But clearly we were wrong. Other artists – filmmakers – love dance too.

With “Pina,” German cinema legend Wim Wenders joins the recent ranks, which include American documentarian Frederick Wiseman (“La Danse”), the Briton Mike Figgis (“The Co(te)lette Film”), and indie guy Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), in crafting rapturous, high-tech paeans to the art form. Wenders’s current wonder is shot with 3-D technology and there’s a lot of excitement over the cinematographic skill employed.

On the surface, “Pina”’s vast and generous showcase of Bausch’s Tanztheater ensemble seems to serve dance well. Beyond beautifully photographed, it’s sumptuous and cannot be more visually engaging.

The best parts, the brilliant bits, of “Pina,” may emanate not from the choreographer but from the filmmaker. Wenders removes Bausch’s work from the theater, and places it in the startlingly tidy German countryside (everything in this film is immaculate). A dancer frolics in the grass, toying with her colorful chiffon skirt. A duet transpires on a stunning glass-walled outdoor platform. Back in the city, the man and woman twirl at street level, beneath an elevated commuter rail track. Also gripping are the sequences shot in the mills and factories of Wuppertal, the central German town where the dance company is based. A male dancer, flopped onto the platform of what looks like a steel mill, moves his limbs like a broken puppet. Industrial supply cars glide silently behind him. What a vision. There’s an extremely wry sequence — gee the whole thing is so severe you dare not laugh out loud — clowning in a tram car. This material is amazing to watch, memorable, transcendental. Bravo, Wim Wenders. [review continues below photo]

Bausch is admittedly not my favorite dance maker. What on earth is she trying to say? Even if I got part of it, it would be acceptable. I see that she’s gathered a colorful tribe, and employs a theatrical, plastic visage to make it all human. But I don’t recognize the people. The look doesn’t help me — unkempt hair, loose breasts, grandma sack-style dresses, lingerie-slips, ball gowns worn by bohemians. The male contingent is even weirder, in retro suits with bare feet. The staring, hanging, clinging, clawing, dropping and, above all, the suffering – to what end? It’s strikes me as very sad. The old-tyme music distracts, excuse me but I don’t care to reminisce on Germany in the 1930s. I fail to meld as an audience member with this artist, perhaps my inadequacy.

The studio and theater scenes, delivered in bits and pieces, are grounded in Bausch’s signature work, the unbearably opaque “Cafe Muller,” which has not aged well. Dancers sliding down walls, overturning chairs, the purposeful ugliness feels irrelevant.

So what’s at the heart of this movie? Not a documentary, it provides no artistic context. The film assumes Pina Bausch matters – a lot. I was waiting to hear from the grizzled German dance critic, a chain-smoking “Sprockets” guy, who’s devoted a lot of time thinking deeply about Bausch’s art. But he’s not in the picture. Instead, the precious explanatory moments are allocated to sound bites by infatuated dancers, e.g., “Pina told me ‘be more crazy’ …” Touching because the grief-stricken dancers memorialize Bausch so soon after her death, nonetheless, these commentaries are not of real use to civilians.

Does “Pina” deepen our connection to a mystery-plagued art form? That’s what I care about. Dance needs fewer Martians and more Earthlings; less obfuscation, more clarity. We need humane, direct communication with audiences. At the screening I attended, the response was muted. I wondered how many new dance friends “Pina” had made.

Photos: ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, photos by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release. Apologies to the photographer.

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4 thoughts on “Between “Pina” and a hard place

  1. BRS Feb 8,2012 11:19 pm

    Great review Debra — there’s a distancing effect that the film has, IMO. I find Wim Wenders (with whom I’m admittedly much more familiar) an endlessly fascinating guy, but have been a bit baffled at some of the more whole-hearted raves re: the movie.

  2. debra Jan 18,2012 12:49 pm

    Woody and Jacqueline, thank you for these comments! Just today, the film got its official Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign. Woody, thank you, especially for sharing that memory. Go see the film — you gotta see it in the theater, it’s 3-D! — and send me your thoughts. Cheers, Debra L.

  3. Woody Schofield Jan 18,2012 12:40 pm


    I am wanting to see this film as I was curious what it captured of Pina’s work. I have been a fan of Pina’s for 20 years and saw several of the BAM performances beginning in the 90’s . I at times was amazed at her fantastical and epic theater on subjects, eg. “Palermo Palermo” with the audience facing a massive brick wall that filled the entire proscenium until it fell back and crashed onto the stage with dust and pieces of brick flying about and dust (that she brought from Palermo) floating into the audience. I had just returned from a Dance Theater of Harlem tour in Palermo and the smell was exactly from Palermo. The dancers performed amongst the broken brick for the remainder of the performance with plenty of vocal theatrics touching on Italian culture. Pina was an amazing choreographer and director. It’s unfortunate the film may not pay adequate tribute to her significant contributions to the dance world.

  4. Jacqueline Jan 11,2012 11:55 am

    I agree — as stunningly beautiful as the film is, it provided no context whatsoever and sadly I walked out (of the same screening) not knowing or particularly wanting to know more about Pina.

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