Discovering Pina Bausch

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Writing about Wim Wenders’ dance film “Pina” means surrendering to language’s ability to name. There is a comfort in that kind of emotional precision. Sitting in the dark movie theater, my attention was fixed on the dancers’ movements. Although I am not at all well-versed in the language of modern dance, I found myself responding to those bodies’ reflections of mood with the kind of exhilarated excitement I have felt reading a novel. I saw the sheen of fear, the heavy feather of tenderness, both rendered in gestures that we can perform, and can that expose us.

Wenders began the film as a joint project with the German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. After her sudden death in 2009, he decided to continue working on the film at the urging of her dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal (“Dancetheater of Wuppertal”). The result is a dazzling collaboration between two art forms, and a celebration not only of Bausch’s artistic accomplishment, but of the many people who come together create a dance performance and a film. The give-and-take of both art forms is apparent here. Bausch’s choreography explores human relationships and interiors with an intensity that is both visceral and abstract. Although the world of emotions may seem dimly-lit, feelings, Bausch’s work seems to say, both pose and answer their own questions. The emotional landscape rendered before a viewer’s eyes is fleeting, and yet, the afterimages of each bodily shift accumulate and remain.

The film is presented in 3D, a tool that sometimes feels like a technological gimmick instead of an artistic enhancement. However, in Wenders’ hands, the technology is wholly relevant and elegantly integrated into the viewing experience. It allows the moving bodies to emerge from the flatness of the screen, to stretch their limbs and present themselves in all their beating movement, just as they might without the mediation of the video camera’s wide eye. In two interviews I listened to, Wenders’ expressed his hope for the technology’s unobtrusive utility. I also found it thrilling to see parts of so many complex productions one after the other. You will have to see for yourself which performances speak most directly to you.

Bausch’s version of “The Rite of Spring,” performed on a stage covered in soil, is spare and wrenching. Bausch does not create something radically new or altogether alien, but instead explores the infinite, subtle variations somewhere in between. In the theater, I absorbed the dancers’ movements in silence, without recourse to the particularities of spoken language—and certainly without a  language of formalized movement. I was, for a while, suspended in a dreamworld not wholly unlike the “real” world: a place inhabited by graceful sleepwalkers.

The photograph is a still from a revivial of Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring”

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