I can never forget the hippopotamus. It was a lovelorn one at that, wallowing in a lagoon of a few inches of water on the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was 1985, and my first time seeing the work of Pina Bausch, the German expressionist choreographer, and her company Wuppertal Tanztheater. I was knocked out.
Bausch passed away in 2009, but not before beginning a film project with the noted German director Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club). At her death, which came very quickly, and with the filming scheduled to have begun only a few days later, Wenders considered dropping the project, but Bausch’s dancers and others convinced him to continue. His film, “Pina” premiered last year to great acclaim and is one of the documentary nominees for this year’s Academy Awards.
Shot in a technically advanced form of 3-D, “Pina” opens Friday at the Cinerama and runs until February 16. It is a remarkable statement about a unique artist and should not be missed by any lover of dance or theater, or by those with a passion for visionary filmmaking.
The core of “Pina” is twofold: segments from four of Bausch’s landmark works shot especially for the film, three in front of a live audience; and solos and duets made at various sites throughout Wuppertal (a smaller German industrial city and Bausch’s long-time home base), and the surrounding countryside. Added to them are a series of dancer comments, and brief archival clips of Bausch as a performer.
The most spectacular segment, and the one made most vivid by 3-D, is at the beginning of the film, passages from the dance that first put Bausch on the map in 1975, “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring). This Stravinsky masterpiece, controversial when it was first premiered in 1913, remains enormously powerful music, and is matched by the stunning choreography that Bausch created for it.
It is a passionate tribal rite for massed groupings of men and women. To say that it is earthy is no understatement, as the stage floor is covered with peat that soon coats the dancers faces and bodies, adding to the primeval nature of the work.
Wenders inserts his cameras around and within the performance space and the 3-D effect, clarity of picture, and brilliant natural colors make us feel as if we are there on-stage. We can almost smell the soil, and feel the heat rising off the dancer's bodies. Adding an aural dimension to these stunning visuals is sound recording that captures the breathing of the performers and their pounding feet against the earthy floor.
In the course of the movie the Wuppertal performers comment several times on Bausch’s constant observing of people and of her environment. The daughter of hoteliers, perhaps some of this penchant took shape in childhood with the constant comings and goings of guests, and the little dramas that might have ensued.
In “Café Muller,” said to have been inspired by this childhood, we see a series of interactions between several performers, the women in the slip-like dresses so favored by Bausch. Never in the film do the women wear pants, only dresses or gowns, a few times a skirt. The men are frequently costumed in suits, offering the work a European formalism we don’t often see in American contemporary dance.
“Café Muller” takes place in a large room strewn with tables and chairs, and in its depiction of relationships, particularly between the sexes, it further reveals dimensions of Bausch’s work that are graphic and full of tension. Born in 1940, Bausch can be witty and clever, but more often she has a grim view of the world and one wonders about the impact of the devastation and legacy of World War II on her aesthetic sensibility.
Two other works are profiled in the film. “Vollmond” (Full Moon) features another water covered stage and a huge boulder. Besides relationships, Bausch has a soft-spot for the natural world. “Kontakthof” (Meeting Hall) takes place in a large room, a bit like a high school gym or auditorium, and divides men against women. Having recently seen the touring production of “West Side Story,” I could not help but think that here was an expanded read on “The Dance at the Gym.”
“Kontakthof” has been performed by three different casts: Bausch’s own company; men and women over 65; and teen-agers over 14. The film allows what the staged version can’t. We see in the same movement sequences cutting back and forth between these groupings, all in same or similar costumes, with the company getting the lion’s share of screen time. It is moving to see company members morph into what we presume are their older, and very briefly, younger selves.
Interspersed among the four Bausch masterworks are a series of site-specific solos and duets. Some are from Bausch’s works, some created, as I understand, by the company dancers in homage to her. Though they are wonderful, there are too many of them, and along with a surfeit of dancer “comments” the film, at 102 minutes, drags towards its ending.
We never, but once, actually see the performers speak their comments. We only see their faces, each one doing an expressive “dance.” On the accompanying soundtrack for each we hear what they have to say, in English or with subtitles translated from the several languages the multinational company members speak. It is a catchy device and reminds us that the tongue that is first for many, and ties them all together, is a non-verbal one.
The series of solos and duets are shot in various locations such as an industrial site with wonderful overhanging girders (groovy in 3-D); in, along and above the tramway that serves the travelers of Wuppertal (even groovier in 3-D); on the streets of the town as traffic and pedestrians pass by; in a pool with lanes of swimmers; and inside a glass-like box in a park setting. Reflecting Bausch’s interest in the natural world, pieces also take place in gardens, parks, on a denuded hillside, and along a small river.
Some are sly and subversive, others powerfully emotional, yet others gems of movement perfection. All remind the viewer of just how exceptional these performers are as dancers, and as expressive artists. The latter is critically important to an understanding of Bausch, as she and her work follow in the tradition of German expressionism that helped inspire her multidimensional “tanztheater.”
From the film we can take away only a small piece of who Bausch was as an artist. We get only glimpses of works that were in actuality full evening productions. Wenders and his colleagues have cherry-picked what they wish us to see, and much of it focuses on Bausch’s movement, her choreography, and not on her overarching theatrical concepts. Bausch had many admirers and more than her share of detractors, especially in this country, and to understand, appreciate, and judge her work it must be seen in a fully realized live production.
“Pina” does not give us a biography or history of Bausch. We do not learn why she did what she did, or what her techniques were. What sense we get from her is from the comments of her dancers, from the occasional glimpses of her as a performer, and of course, from her art. That is the unique and appealing nature of this film.