Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Pina”

“Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” – Pina Bausch

Not everyone communicates in the same way. I have the gift of gab, and therefore talk and write for a living. Others convey meaning using numbers. Still others do it through a combination of speech and body language, often in a different role that requires them to do so. And there are still others who can only express themselves wordlessly, through the art of dance.

The late German choreographer Philippina “Pina” Bausch is remembered by the members of her dance company as a woman who spoke little, but who observed and conveyed volumes while using a near-extreme economy of words. She was a great ballet director and founder of the Wuppertal Tanztheater, arguably the world’s most innovative contemporary dance company. The great German film director Wim Wenders admired her, and together they were going to make a film about her life’s work. Unfortunately, just days before filming started in the summer of 2009, tragedy struck when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died less than a week after her prognosis, mere days before filming began. Wenders and Wuppertal Tanztheater continued with the planned documentary in 2010, reconfiguring it not as a narrative documentary on her life, but as a free-flowing art film comprised of her most famous pieces, staged and re-imagined.

The gamble paid off. Wenders’s stunning, otherworldly Pina (which I previewed here) is amongst the finest documentaries made since the turn of the century. Rather than editing together documentary footage of interviews in a talking-heads format, the company instead staged Bausch’s greatest works for the cinema. We see her famous “Café Müller”, a treatise on the inability of people to communicate in arguably the most social setting, a café. There is also her raw treatment of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, attacked by the dancers on a stage covered in actual dirt and standing in as a feral episode of sexual awakening. Performers pair off or dance solo in glass houses, on the edge of cliffs, in a gymnasium, on the Berlin U-Bahn and even on a water-filled, gloriously rainy stage against a gigantic boulder the size of a small house. Each sequence is dazzling and constitutes a minor masterpiece in and of itself, made complete when viewed collectively.

The purpose is for each dancer to appear as if at a wake for their beloved teacher, each sharing small memories of how they will remember her. The sense of loyalty is strong, as the dancers range in age, body type and ethnicity, and communicate in brief voiceovers in English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Slovenian and other languages. No matter how they verbalized, what they communicated through dance requires no translation. Maya Angelou put it best when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. And the dancers convey their feelings for Pina Bausch for us through dance, for that is how she made them feel and how they most freely express themselves. When caught speechless, all that is left is the dance.

A word must be said of the use of 3-D technology in the film. In a crass big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, the effects are used to show you giant robots or monsters laying waste to civilization, or to make your eyeballs singe with hurt while explosions cause seizures. It has been criticized as a cash grab and a vulgar stand-in for the absence of cinematic substance. The use of 3-D for what is essentially a formless dance narrative may seem incongruous at first, but is actually appropriate. The effect is that you see these pieces as if you were from the balcony of the Wuppertal dance theatre itself, watching a live performance. The use of 3-D doesn’t make itself conscious or obvious. It blends itself so subtly into the staging that it feels organic and doesn’t distract. In other words, it is the cleverest, subtlest, most artistically purposeful use of 3-D in the cinema. Perhaps there is hope for the technology after all.

Wenders’s sublime film is subtitled “a film for Pina Bausch”, not about her. That is exactly correct: this is a labour of love, made not for commercial gain, but for someone who has given purpose and breathed real life into people.  

Pina is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and is the first time I’ve ever said that the extra money to pay for 3-D was worth every penny, and more. It is one of the very best films released in 2011. I’ll gladly see it again, surcharge be damned, anytime.