Director Wim Wenders portrait of Pina Bausch, who has been hailed as the most influential figure in contemporary European dance, focuses more on the dance than the choreographer.
A topless lass, clad only in an oversized pair of white men’s briefs and an accordion strapped across her chest, concealing her breasts, speaks in subtitled German of the four seasons. In front and behind her, women and men dressed more formally in dresses, suits and ties, file onto the stage of Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Dance Theater; a procession rhythmically moving between hanging, floor-to-ceiling curtains.
Cut to a wide angle of the same stage, temporarily devoid of these dancers, as stage hands spread a floor of thick brown soil, an arena for a multiplying group of shoeless women in white negligees to prance about in, growing increasingly dirty, as none of the now-more-than dozen appear to be willing to approach the lone colorful swath of cloth lying at stage center: a deep red square lying atop the clay.
Enter an equally large group of barefoot, breathless men clad only in dark pants. The piece, Bausch’s 1975 interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 “Rite of Spring,” is one of her seminal works chosen to be photographed by director Wim Wenders (working in the documentary mode that served him well in his Oscar-nominated 1999 film, “Buena Vista Social Club”). In an innovative use of stereoscopic space (with 3-D cinematography courtesy of Helene Louvart, who previously lensed “The Beaches of Agnes” and “Ma Mere”), the director placed the two-lens camera not as a member of the audience gazing down on the proscenium, but as an active participant moving about the stage – or the surrounding sidewalks, poolsides, monorail interiors, industrial factories, hillsides and hilltops of picturesque North Rhine Westphalia, Germany, home to Wuppertal.
Here among the earth-covered stage, the camera becomes the visual point-of-view of the alpha male of the group, as different women take turns handling the crimson satin, sheepishly approaching him (and us) with their offering, before retreating back, some terrified, into a huddled, writhing mass of female bodies. Ultimately, his (and by extension, our) hands choose a partner, transformed into a lady in red, her now-bright slip standing out brilliantly amongst the stained whites, the blacks and the browns.
The other pieces Wenders chose to represent are Bausch’s “Cafe Muller” (1978), “Vollmund” (2006) and “Kontakthof” (1978), the latter a work that she re-staged (and re-interpreted) two more times, in 2000 and in 2008.
Originally, it was mounted as a piece featuring well-dressed men and women who have come to meet in a three-walled dance hall, for a time silently sitting in folding chairs, until one by one they begin enveloping a lone gal, who stands prone as they aggressively, repetitively (and playfully) poke and prod her. Bausch revisited “Kontakthof” first with performers over the age of 65, then reducing them to their teens (some as young as 14) in her final staging.
Wenders, meanwhile, has chosen to present all three renditions as one, artfully cutting between the dancers of different age groups, blending the generations into a cohesive whole, at one point transforming the woman at the center of attention from slim brunette Nazareth Panadero into statuesque blonde Julie Shanahan.
Not that you’d know these names or historical details from the film itself. If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Bausch and her troupe, Wenders does little to clue you in.
Periodically, he intercuts 2-D, black-and-white, behind-the-scenes shots of the frequently barefoot Bausch, his friend who tragically died two days before rehearsals for the film were to begin, just five days after her cancer diagnosis at age 68.
Bausch had been hailed as the most influential figure in contemporary European dance for the past three decades, creator of a much-admired “fusion of radical theatre, surreal art, sexual drama and danced body language,” according to one of many appreciative obituaries, giving life to what’s known as Tanztheater, an opinion that’s backed up by many of her dancers, who reminisce about their fallen mentor in voiceover, as Wenders has them face his camera in static portraiture, without the benefit of being identified by name.
It’s a systematic contextual failing that connoisseurs of modern dance likely won’t mind, but for newcomers like this critic, I wish I wasn’t left to discover more via Google. Still, I was compelled to return for a second viewing, far more appreciative of the performers being pelted with shovels full of earth, buckets full of water – and those collapsing chairs and tables being knocked assunder, clearing the way for a couple who repeatedly return to a lovers’ embrace in “Café Muller,” a signature piece that we witness Bausch performing in archival footage.
“Dance, Dance. Otherwise, we are lost,” she’s heard saying as the film’s curtain draws to a close. Through the work on display here, its hard to argue with this claim.
PINA (PG for some sensuality/partial nudity and smoking.) Cast includes Pina Bausch, Regina Advento, Malou Airaudo, Ruth Amarante, Rainer Behr, Andrey Berezin, Damiano Ottavio Bigi, Benedicte Billet, Nazareth Panadero and Julie Shanahan. Written and directed by WimWenders. 3 stars out of 4.