PINA in Seattle

24 Jan

As you may recall, 2009 was a rough year for the world of modern dance, with the passing of two iconic choreographers in Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. Cunningham was 90, had carefully laid out plans for the future of his company and his works, and died peacefully, as if ready to leave, but Bausch’s passing was unexpected—a cancer diagnosis was followed by her death a mere five days later and only two days before a documentary about her was to begin filming. Director Wim Wenders cancelled the project, but at the behest of the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal, was encouraged to make the film anyway. Given the rave reviews worldwide, we should be glad he did and I was very lucky to be invited to an advance screening in Seattle for Pina in 3D.

Normally, I find 3D movies to be a bit disorienting and maybe even a little nauseating, but I didn’t mind it at all in Pina. Filming dance in general can be tricky because inevitably, something is missed whether it’s a complete picture or a minute detail (in the words of the master herself, “the tiniest detail matters”) but the director had a clear vision of what he wanted—one of Bausch’s most prominent works featured at the beginning of the film was her Le Sacre du Printemps, captured perfectly from unique angles and views that didn’t diminish the work at all. I would even say I was surprised by how well it was filmed because it was as if the camerawork followed exactly what needed to be seen, and actually enhanced the work by providing insight through visual cues. When a group of female dancers huddle in a circle, each one running up to a man to offer herself, the camera is positioned from his perspective and you see every ounce of terror in their eyes and the subject of Igor Stravinsky’s famous score is revealed—human sacrifice. First made famous by Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet that caused audiences to riot, and a popular choice amongst a number of his contemporaries, it’s Bausch’s interpretation that stands out and it’s in her ability to see truth that makes it so. Though ritual sacrifice is a forgone practice in modern times it’s still a part of our history and thus a part of humanity, and for me, that’s what Bausch’s choreography taps into. While being incredibly physically demanding and somewhat abstract, Bausch’s Le Sacre still achieves a sense of reality. It doesn’t literally depict a rite, but unmistakably shows through movement the visceral, primeval nature of such an act.

Pina

Azusa Seyama, Andrey Berezin, dancers of the ensemble of “Sacre du Printemps” in Wim Wenders’ PINA. ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

In addition to substantial performance footage, the documentary is laced with interviews with Tanztheater dancers—well, not “interviews” exactly, because they’re almost never shown speaking, just staring into the camera while they narrate what they would say (sorry, I know that sounds confusing). Each dancer describes their experiences in dancing for Bausch (or not, as some are completely silent on the matter) and dance short, original pieces (many of them outdoors) as a tribute to her and it was fascinating to be able to hear what they had to say in words and see how they expressed their elegies in movement (curiously, one dancer chose to pad a pair of pointe shoes with veal and bourée to her heart’s content). It made me think of what it means for a legendary icon to bestow a legacy and in the case of Bausch, it seems as though she didn’t just teach her dancers her style and choreography, but also empowered them to know themselves. Returning to this idea of her having an uncanny ability to see truth, many of the dancers had beautiful, poetic words to say about how she opened their eyes and for those dancers to be able to be independent and create dances in her honor is remarkable. In similar situations where an artist dies their followers may find themselves in a mad scramble to catalog and preserve, but Bausch’s dancers had a quiet calm about them, saddened by her passing but also ready to fly freely on their own terms.

Pina

Damiano Ottavio Bigi and Clémentine Deluy in Wim Wenders’ PINA. ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

I was happy to see two of Bausch’s most prominent works that I had learned about a few years ago in school: Café Müller and Kontakthof. That was during what I like to call my “pre-enlightenment” period, when I was still a rather green student of dance, not confident in my opinions about it, and not self-aware of what I even could learn. I have a few visual memories of watching both pieces on the screen in Sullivant Hall, though I only have foggy clues as to what my reactions to both pieces were. This is not to say that they aren’t profound—far from it—only that I was not apt to form a coherent, memorable response. I remember enjoying the idea behind restaging Kontakthof­ with a bunch of elderly people instead of dancers, and it seems in recent years it underwent another transformation by having a cast of young teenagers perform it. It says a lot about the versatility of the work and Bausch’s creative genius, not to mention the courage to change her work so drastically without any fear of diminishing its artistic impact.

Excerpt from Kontakthof:

 

As for Café Müller…well, I have to be honest and say when I first saw it I’m pretty sure I had no idea what to make of it, but what I found fascinating this time around was one section where a couple are locked in an embrace, and a third man manipulates their bodies until the man of the couple is left holding the woman—and drops her. This repeats again and again, frenetically increasing in speed and each time they return to that same embrace. I took it as a representation of societal expectations of love and how it’s impossible to do anything but what you know instinctively, and watching Café Müller truly opened my eyes to one of the themes of the film, and that is the love between Pina and her dancers. Love can in fact be separated from romance and with more recent portrayals of directors and choreographers being crudely egotistical, it’s important for the audience to see an instance of mutual love and respect. Particularly in the US where George Balanchine is so well known for loving his dancers, bestowing gifts of perfume to his muses and creating extraordinary ballets on them, he’s revered to a point of being held up on a pedestal, whereas Pina and her dancers had something far less romantic and weepy, but still something incredibly strong and emotionally fulfilling.

Pina concludes with vibrant excerpts from Vollmond, an epic work of dance that has rain and flooding and is by far the most physically demanding of Pina’s work I’ve seen. Though the film still isn’t what I would call a crash course on Pina Bausch, but it does illustrate the kind of work she did in both vivid and thoughtful detail. Even as someone who knew a few bits about Pina, I learned so much and have re-shaped ideas about what it means to love art. My conclusion (while incomplete) is now including a theory that whether it is a love for honing one’s craft, or a love of something that inspired one to create, all art is born from love, and it doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful, just genuine.

Excerpt from Vollmond:

 

For Seattle area readers, Pina will have a limited run at the Cinerama Theatre February 10th-16th, and will open February 24th at the SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. Please check the following websites for showtimes and details:

Seattle Cinerama (opens 2/10)

SIFF Cinema at the Uptown (opens 2/24)

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