Pina the Powerful, Now in Sumptuous 3-D

By Victoria Looseleaf

It was a huge loss to the global arts community when choreographer Pina Bausch died unexpectedly from cancer in 2009, at age 68, some five days after being diagnosed (and not even two weeks after Michal Jackson’s equally untimely death).

We were in Montpellier at the time (click here for our Los Angeles Times Dispatch From Montpellier; click here and here for our 2011 festival coverage, including our LAT reportage), and were naturally distraught. (Merce Cunningham would die in 2009 as well, shortly after the German-born choreographer, but at age 90.)

Pina, as she was affectionately known, had trained with Kurt Jooss, one of the fathers of German expressionistic dance, and graduated from Juilliard before founding the contemporary troupe, Danztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, in that industrial town in 1972. Famous for its striking theatricality, which included sado-masochism, intentionally bad ballet, lots of evening gowns, high heels, lipstick-adorned women and barefoot men in suits, Pina’s company was also known for its stellar dancers.

Direct, coy and infused with manic glee, many performers stayed with Pina for more than 25 years. Now, with Wim Wenders’ gorgeous documentary, Pina, Germany’s official entry at the 84th Oscars (it better win!), we have a peek into Pina’s world. Having become completely smitten with Bausch after seeing a 1985 performance by the company (her choreography had already garnered world-wide acclaim and would continue to win major prizes until her death), Wenders sought out the dancemaker.

The two immediately began making plans to collaborate, and were in talks for 20 years, until Wenders (below), after seeing the concert film U2 3D, finally found the format that would bring Bausch’s work to the screen in all its kinetic splendor. The year was 2009, but just two days before the first rehearsals were to begin, Bausch died. The work that was to be a documentary about Pina, then became a love letter for Pina. (And though Pina isn’t the first 3D dance film – last year Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance 3D underwhelmed the critics – click here for our L.A. Times review – it certainly has raised the bar.)

Wenders’ film is filled with stunning imagery. Excerpts are included from Bausch’s famed Rite of Spring (where dancers move, angst-ridden, through several tons of dirt that cover the stage, right and at top), and Nelken or Carnations, whose set is a stage strewn with thousands of the pink herbaceous perennial. (Click here for our review from the 2010 Lyon Danse Biennale, where we actually got to hang out with some of the company’s dancers. We also cherish our time spent with Pina, herself, in a 1996 interview.) But we digress: Bausch’s early masterpiece, 1978’s Café Müller, below, is also seen, both in past and present iterations.

An intimate work based on Bausch’s childhood memories of her parents’ establishment, Müller features a female dancer (originally Bausch), re-entering the café as a sleepwalker, eyes shut tight and arms outstretched. Set to the music of Henry Purcell, the work is filled with chairs being flung about in a place where people don’t connect easily (what would Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg think?), their spasmodic, often brutal moves a social metaphor. Occasionally decried as ugly – and not dance, per se – the work was excerpted in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film, Talk to Her, with Pina, one of the dancers, doing the terpsichorean honors.

Wenders, known for such films as Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club, made wonderful use of Wuppertal and its environs, shooting scenes in and around its famous monorail, in traffic and on piles of waste that surround the city. There are also excerpts from Kontakthof (Meeting Hall), performed in three different versions: the Bausch ensemble; older dancers raging from 65 to 80; and teens, aged 14 to 18. (For a look at Pina working with teens on her work Contact, we recommend Dancing Dreams, a fine documentary directed by Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffman; click here for our take on that.)

Bausch was also known for huge sets, one featuring water, Vollmond (Full Moon), which takes place in an onstage river of water – tons of it (right), while her 2004 work, Ten Chi, with Peter Pabst’s trisected whale dominating the stage, was a memorable opus we reviewed for Dance Magazine in 2007 at UCLA’s Royce Hall (click here). And though we were jet-lagged, having just come from Den Hague and the Holland Dance Festival (click here for our coverage of that), we were mesmerized by the three-hour opus, not least of which was due to the insanely fierce dedication of the dancers.

Speaking of dancers, members of Pina’s troupe are also interviewed in the film, lauding her in adoring terms. One recalls: “When I began, I was pretty shy; I still am. And after many months of rehearsing, she called me and said, ‘You just have to get crazier.’ And that was the only comment in almost 20 years.”

It was Bausch herself who had insisted the film not have a conventional narration, which might make it seem excessively foreign to those who aren’t dance aficionados. But this is decidedly not the case: As dance is a form of non-verbal communication – stories without words – it’s fitting that this tribute to Pina, who impacted contemporary dance in profound ways, does most of its talking through bodies, those very bodies she explored, excavated and arranged so exquisitely, even as they were nude, vulnerable and subject to torment, psychological and otherwise.

Finally, much as we absolutely loved the film, we also came away slightly haunted – and sad – at the thought that Pina left us too soon. True, her work remains – or does it? We wonder, after all, how the company will continue without this unique voice at its helm – and with its dancers, for the most part, not getting any younger. Knowing there will never be another Pina Bausch hurts, but we’re grateful for the time we had with her – and for this remarkable film by Wim Wenders.


About Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, KUSC-FM radio, Dance Magazine, Performances Magazine and other outlets. She roams the world covering dance, music, theater, film, food and architecture. Have pen - and iPad - will travel! Her latest book, "Isn't It Rich? A Novella In Verse" is now available on Amazon. Thank you for reading! Cheers...
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