Pina: Dancing for Dance

“The camera’s ability to capture events onstage, a choreography, was limited. It automatically became more ‘graphic’ than onstage, more abstract and less corporeal . . . There was, so it seemed to me, a fundamental misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, between dance and film.” In Pina: The Film and the Dancers, a book he coauthored with Donata Wenders, Wim Wenders articulates a perceptual chasm he long felt he was unable to bridge. For twenty years, he had wanted to make a documentary about the choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch, but for twenty years this gulf between performances on-screen and performances in life had had him stumped. Bodies moving on a big, flat screen do not have the same effect on an audience as bodies moving on a stage in the world. Cinema abstracts the human body and distances it from the viewer, and while those qualities have been used to great advantage in the history of movies, they muted precisely what Wenders was hoping to record—the visceral, emotional, muscular experience of watching Pina Bausch’s dance theater in real space. In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty addresses this physical reality: “To be a body is to be tied to a certain world . . . Our body is not primarily in space; it is of it.” Moviegoers can never literally be of cinematic space. We enter it by route of the imagination, and that was the trouble. Wenders hoped for a way to bring the film viewer closer to the space of the dancers’ bodies.

The solution arrived with new technology. While watching a U2 concert filmed using modern digital 3D (2008’s U2 3D), the director suddenly felt an avenue had been opened to him and that he could begin work on the documentary. The technology does not mimic actual human perception, nor does it transport spectators into the world of live theater. In 3D, what is added to the screen is the illusion of depth, the sense that the spectator can fall or walk into the space in front of her, that she can enter it naturally, and that the bodies she sees exist in a shared space. While this technology has been used to create spectacular, soaring, and often fantastical effects (in such films as Avatar and Hugo, for example), Wenders employed 3D in Pina to produce a feeling of intimacy between the viewer and the dancers, one that honors the startling experience of watching a Bausch performance by creating the illusion that the absolute boundary of the screen can be crossed.

In the book on the film, Wenders reports that he actively resisted going to see Bausch’s Café Müller in 1985. He claims he had no interest in dance whatsoever and was dragged to the production by his then companion, Solveig Dommartin. Once he had been seated in the audience and began to watch, however, he found himself so moved by the performance that he wept. I suspect it was this cataclysmic initial response that made Wenders at once eager and cautious about transferring Bausch’s work to film. There is nothing sentimental or soft about Café Müller, or any dance by Bausch, for that matter. Although one can feel the ferocious rigor of her choreographic vision, one does not come away with a message or story that can be explicated. One cannot encapsulate what one has seen in words. Rather, her work generates multiple, and often ambiguous, meanings, which, for a viewer like me, is precisely what constitutes its extraordinary strength.

An artist’s later acclaim often dims our memory of earlier controversy, so it is helpful to recall that Bausch’s debut in the United States, a season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, was met with confusion, even opprobrium. The dance critic for the New Yorker, Arlene Croce, alluded to the “meaningless frenzy” of Bausch’s work, and to Café Müller as “thin but flashy shtick.” “She keeps referring us to the act of brutalization and humiliation—to the pornography of pain.” The critic for the Washington Post worried in print about where Bausch stood on “the moral spectrum.” The force of Café Müller has little to do with what might be called the conventions of aesthetic response, which have often involved analyses of technique and form or turgid examinations of how one performance compares with another. What perplexed these reviewers was that there was no historical scaffolding on which they could stand, no ready-made response on
which they could rely. The work did not tell them how to think or feel, and their lack of orientation generated suspicion, discomfort, and anger. Of course, the history of art is littered with exactly such mystified and hostile responses.

A woman collapses slowly against a wall. Another woman, blind or asleep, stumbles forward while a man removes chairs that stand in her way. A redhead in a coat scurries across the floor. A seated woman shows her naked back to the audience. A man manipulates the body movements of a couple so that they enact a repetitive ritual of embraces, kisses, lifts, and falls. Their rote motions get faster and faster, mimicking a sped-up film, and the viewer is left torn between laughter and distress. Café Müller’s dance of search, meeting, seduction, rejection, and retreat, which takes place to the music of Purcell, evokes the ongoing rhythmic narrative of our undying physical need for other human beings, a need that is forever impeded by obstacles, both internal and external. Bausch’s dance forms are reminiscent of dreams, and by their nature, dreams are more emotional than waking life. The choreographer exploits their mysterious vocabulary in her work to achieve insights into the affective, often erotic and destructive, pulse of human desire.

The viewer’s emotion is born of a profound recognition of himself in the story that is being played out onstage before him. He engages in a participatory, embodied mirroring relation with the dancers, which evades articulation in language. Susanne K. Langer is writing about music in the following passage from Philosophy in a New Key, but her commentary can be applied equally well to dance: “The real power of music lies in the fact that it can be ‘true’ to the life of feeling in a way that language cannot; for its significant forms have that ambivalence of content which words cannot have.” Musical meanings arrive, as Langer puts it, “below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking.”

In their 2007 paper “Motion, Emotion, and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience,” David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese discuss the neurobiology of looking at art as “embodied simulation.” Simply put, when we watch dancers or look at a painting or read a novel, we activate mirror systems in our brains. Although this activation remains below our awareness, it nevertheless allows us to participate in the aesthetic, emotive action of what we are looking at. As Freedberg and Gallese articulate it: “Spectators precognitively grasp emotions that are either explicitly shown or implicitly suggested by works of art.” In her acceptance speech when she won the Kyoto Prize in 2007, Bausch said, “For I always know exactly what I am looking for, but I know it with my intuition and not with my head.” Indeed, many artists work this way, even artists whose medium is words. There is always a preverbal, physiological, rhythmic, motoric ground that precedes language and informs it.

A keen awareness of the nondiscursive, intuitively formed character of Bausch’s dance theater runs through Pina. The advent of the new 3D format did not banish technical problems; rather, it multiplied them. One by one, though, Wenders and his team solved every glitch—and then they lost their chief collaborator and the subject of their film when Pina Bausch died suddenly on June 30, 2009. The movie came to a halt but was reborn two years later as a memorial, which includes not only excerpts from performances of Café Müller, Le sacre du printemps, Kontakthof, and Vollmond (the works Bausch and Wenders had settled on for filming) but also danced tributes from the members of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch troupe to their director, choreographer, and fellow dancer, solos drawn from her works.

Woven into the film are also interstitial scenes in which the dancers tell anecdotes or stories about Pina. Although we see the dancers’ heads on-screen and we hear them speak, we do not see them speaking. Their stories and commentaries, delivered in several different languages, are heard in voice-over. This simple displacement of the viewer’s expectation—that when heads on-screen talk, their mouths must move—acts as a visual reminder that the language that matters most in this film is made of gestures, not of words.

One of the remarkable qualities of any successful work of art is that we don’t see or feel the labor that went into making it. The thing feels as if it had to be the way it is. It is salutary to know that after filming was completed, Wenders had “several hundred hours of material,” and that he edited that material for a year and a half. One can only wonder about the thousands of decisions that had to be made during that time. When it was finished, the documentary itself had become a rhythmic sequence, achieved through visual repetitions and leaps of editing that are felt in the body of the viewer just as the dances are.

Wenders welcomes the viewer first of all to a place, Wuppertal, the town that was home to Bausch’s Tanztheater from the time she succeeded Kurt Jooss as its director in 1969. After I donned my special glasses and settled back in my seat, the first image I saw was of an elevated tram moving over the city, accompanied by the opening credits, the letters of which appeared to be suspended in the air only a few feet in front of me, hovering under the ceiling of the movie theater where I was sitting. Those floating words felt utterly magical. From its opening, then, the film created for me what Wenders had hoped for—a cinematic space I could enter in a new way. It also established a fascinating polarity between the realness of the Wuppertal I saw before me and the enchanted, indeed uncanny, presence of those letters in the air. The tram returns in the film and is seen from various perspectives. Dancers perform their tributes inside it and underneath it. The tram literally binds various parts of Wuppertal together, but it also establishes one pole of an inside/outside and imaginary/real distinction that becomes essential to the film’s movement.

In Le sacre du printemps and Vollmond, Bausch brought the outside into the theater. In her choreography to the famous Stravinsky composition, the dancers wade through, leap over, and roll on a stage covered in peat. And in Vollmond, the dancers perform on and near an enormous rock that suggests a shoreline; they shoot water from their mouths, throw pailfuls of it at one another, and move through it as it rains or cascades over them. In the film, when the dancer Rainer Behr performs his tribute to Bausch outside on dusty, rocky ground, at the edge of a precipice overlooking fields, one cannot help but be drawn back into the space of the performances we have witnessed earlier. “The elements were very important to Pina,” Behr says. “Whether it was sand, earth, stone, water . . . At some point, icebergs and rocks suddenly appeared onstage.” This indoor/outdoor theme is further enhanced by the charming repetition in the film of a sequence of close-to-the-body gestures that mime the changing of the seasons—spring, summer, fall, and winter. Early in the documentary, we see a dancer on the stage ceremoniously name the seasons and perform each of them in a series of precise, piquant arm and hand motions. Near the end, we see the entire troupe march in a long conga line on a hill above the city, their hips swaying and their arms moving as they reiterate the seasonal cycles of warm and hot and cool and cold.

Wenders’s cinematic leaps demonstrate an acute understanding of what might be called the complex levels of our imaginative entrance into artistic worlds. Two of the dancers stand outside, look down at a miniature model of the stage set for Café Müller, and reminisce about their experiences. I found myself fascinated by this dollhouse structure, with its tiny chairs and tables. Before the film cut to a scene of the dance itself, I was treated to a glimpse of dancers inside the little house—to “real” Lilliputian dancers moving around in that shrunken space. More magic. But this movie magic does not point to itself; it could easily be missed, but there it is in the movie, a play on scale, on scale in the world and scale in film. People grow and shrink depending on the real and imagined spaces they inhabit.

At another moment, when earlier, black-and-white footage of Bausch dancing in Café Müller appears in the film, the viewer feels as if she is moved from her seat in the actual theater to a virtual seat in another dark but far more intimate room, with a whirring projector, where the troupe has gathered to look at the old movie in the old, flat style. After the choreographer’s death, her image on this flat screen inside the 3D screen assumes a ghostly, incorporeal, and elegiac quality that lets the viewer participate in the grief of losing the inimitable Pina Bausch.

By allowing us to watch the dancers, listen to their disembodied words, and glimpse the choreographer herself, the film establishes an intimate ground of collective feeling that fluctuates from pleasure to pain and back again. One of the dancers, Pablo Aran Gimeno, explains that when he first came to Wuppertal, he felt a bit lost, but Bausch told him simply, “Dance for love.” This simple bit of advice was obviously helpful, as the young dancer never forgot it.

Pina is, above all, one artist’s gift to another artist. Wim Wenders’s homage to Pina Bausch scrupulously retains the vigor of the choreographer’s particular sensibility and her uncompromising art, but it does so through the director’s own acute visions and filmic rhythms, which become another dance in another genre, another dance for love.

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