Review: Pina ~ theatre notes

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Review: Pina

I've never seen a work by Pina Bausch. As with those of us who come too late, who miss the boat, who weren't there, my knowledge of her work with Wuppertal Tanztheater has been limited to the scraps you gather together - critical books, photographs, videos, reviews, the descriptions of friends, even the traces of her influence in the work of others. I have built a patchwork Bausch, intuiting the language of this choreographer, whose work galvanised modern dance and theatre, from the traces left behind. It's never as good as being there. It never will be.

Wim Wenders knows this. His beautiful documentary film Pina is all about absence: most signally, the absence of Bausch herself, after her sudden death in 2009, five days after being diagnosed with cancer, and just as she and Wenders were planning to make a film about her work. It is not a biography of Bausch, so much as an invocation of her work and her company. Among improvisations made for the film by the different dancers, we are shown some of her most famous dances, including three iconic pieces from the 1970s - Le Sacre du Printemps, Kontakthof, and Café Müller - and a more recent work, Vollmond.

Wenders opens with an evocation of a virtual theatre, in which 3D technology permits him to open up illusory spaces and perspectives to give the spectator something like the shape of Bausch's choregraphy. As he begins, with scenes from Kontakthof, the 3D illusion is heightened, emphasising its artifice to a degree that I found discomforting. The powerful illusion of depth, of the rounded presence of dancers, made clear what was missing: the bodies of the dancers themselves.

These dancers were creatures of light, phantoms who are exact in every visual degree: but in watching dance, I suddenly realised, other senses are also employed, subliminal animal senses that track physical weight, the smell of sweat, disturbances in the air, perhaps even changes in heat. The lack of these other stimuli was at first alienating, then strangely revelatory: the absence of the dancers' bodies was sometimes as strong a feeling as the loss of Bausch. This is, in a real sense, a posthumous film: it's a tribute to a choreographer who is dead, recording performances that have long vanished from the air.

What's beautiful is how conscious Wenders is of these limitations. He knows very well that he can't reproduce the experience of performance, so he doesn't attempt to: from the beginning, his framing of the documentary makes this very clear. He subtly highlights what is missing, and then translates dance into the language of film, the language of light and shadow and illusion. Sometimes this is stunning; there's a particular moment when, as audience members, we standing between curtains at the edge of the stage, looking in at the dancers. He films dances on stage (without too many close-ups, a particular bugbear of mine in filmed performance), and places them also in different contexts - the industrial streets of Wuppertal, a quarry, a modern building that appears to be a glass gallery in the middle of a spring forest.

Wenders uses minimal documentary footage of Bausch herself; the major sequence is a moving black and white film of her role in Café Müller, which she danced with her eyes shut. He is, quite rightly, more interested in her work than her life. Her work, you feel, left her naked enough: and her recondite presence in the fleeting glimpses we are offered radiates a powerful sense of privacy. She is mainly remembered through her dancers, who are filmed in front of the camera, their faces mobile with thought, as a voice-over of their reminiscences plays against their silence. (In a couple of cases, the dancer remains speechless).

The film is not merely a tribute to Pina: it is also, with an increasing freight of emotion, a tribute to the company she made, the dancers who worked with her, in some cases for decades, attempting to realise her vision. They were, as becomes increasingly clear through the film, her collaborators, offering their ideas and feelings and wit as well as their skilled bodies to her work. As much as anything, this is a film about relationship: it permits us an insight into the profound relationships between these artists, and how these emerged into some of the most influential dance works of the past 30 years.

What I wasn't prepared for was the overwhelming emotional power of Bausch's dance. For all the difficulties of performance on film, this is where Wenders triumphs. All her dancers speak about the feeling of Bausch's work, of her scrupulous, pained search to create a language that could express and embody the inexpressible. "Words can only invoke," said Bausch. "That's where dance comes in..." A dancer said of Bausch: "She danced as if she had been risen from the dead... in her pain and loneliness..." In Pina, you can see that quality for yourself. I don't know how the precise gesture of a hand, the angle of a head, a leap, a step, can so surgically open the latent grief and love in your own psyche, but this is what Bausch's choreography does. I was floored by the immediacy and beauty of her language, the fluency and toughness of its emotional economy.

It's not surprising to learn that Wenders was a close friend of Bausch's. Without resorting to the vulgarity of declaring it, this film is made with a great deal of love. It's a lament and celebration, an invocation and farewell. Wenders never intrudes: he stands modestly behind the scenes, enabling us to see what he so admired in his subject. Like Bausch, with the maximum of tact and the minimum of fuss, he manages the translation of feeling into his own medium. It's a marvellous film, and essential viewing for anyone with even the slightest interest in contemporary dance.

Pina by Wim Wenders opens nationwide on August 18. Check Hopscotch Films for details.


russell.w said...

i saw the film (in 3D) in paris a few weeks ago, and loved it, not least because for once the 3D felt neccessary - should also point out that her company continues and is performing her repertoire until 2012 at least, if not longer - you still have opportunities, alison - the night before seeing the wenders film, i saw her final work at theatre de la ville - it was wonderful, and i felt extremely privileged

Alison Croggon said...

Maybe that's the real reason to go to Europe! Unless, by some amazing chance, they are coming here... And yes Russell, you are lucky!

Jake said...

When I saw this back in the UK several months ago, I couldn't help but to be overpowered by it. You are completely right in your comments, it's a tender, beautifully reflective and emotive film. I've seen several of Bausch's pieces but to see the work so defined (especially in those scenes in the unusual settings), captured with such depth and texture was breathtaking.

At the time I couldn't bring myself to write up my experience, partly a fear that I wouldn't be able to do it justice, but I think you've said what was needed. Excellent conveyed.

Kate Hannon said...

Nice review Alison. I saw the movie a couple of nights ago and it took me right back to the excitement and awe of seeing Kontakthof at Adelaide Festival in 1982. The emotional impact of her stunning choreography has lost none of its truth or immediacy. A 3D sceptic normally, I found Wenders' use of the technique quite brilliant. I think I'll see it again and if I'm ever in Wuppertal, well...

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jake (belatedly) and Kate - yes, it's a gorgeous film.