Movie Review: Pina
The Charlotte Observer
Most documentaries put us inside people’s heads. The dazzling, experimental “Pina” puts us inside people’s feet.
By the end of this Oscar-nominated piece, we know almost nothing about the woman who ran a groundbreaking modern dance company from 1973 until her death by cancer in 2009, at the age of 68.
What we do know is how she spent 36 years as a choreographer, exploring and extending the physical limits of the body and the ways it can reveal our feelings. We understand Bausch’s ideas through the ways she asked people to interact with arms, torsos, hands and legs. The subtitle of the film is “Dance, Dance. Otherwise, We Are Lost.” Obviously, she would have been.
German film patriarch Wim Wenders, who’s just five years younger than his subject, wrote and directed. He defies expectations from the opening interview: Most documentaries rely on talking heads, but he doesn’t let anyone speak to the camera. They sit silently, looking at or away from us meaningfully, as we listen to their voiceovers. (I remember hearing French, German, English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Portuguese and Japanese. Bausch collected dancers from all over.)
Wenders fills the film with dance excerpts, including long segments from a jaw-dropping “Rite of Spring” and the melancholic “Café Muller,” where dancers try to connect in a room full of toppled tables and chairs. He has a keen sense of where to put the camera, which can be a problem in dance-related films, and when to shift from long views to close-ups. Bausch called her work “dance theater,” so her performers have especially expressive faces – and, occasionally, voices.
He shot the film in 3-D, and he uses that medium well. A dance piece deserves a third movie dimension just as much as an air battle or a car chase; the art form is partly about carving up space, and we really feel we’re among the dancers when the camera takes us onto the stage.
Bausch could be literal: The Adoration of the Earth in “Rite” takes place on a stage covered with soil, and a dancer grasps the dirt with a kind of desperate tenderness. She could also be enigmatic to the point where logic just doesn’t serve: You have to feel the emotions in Bausch’s dances or close your eyes in defeat.
Wenders matches her sense of whimsy, recreating dances in unlikely places: on elevated trains, in a dank subway, atop traffic islands with cars whizzing by. One dancer stands in the empty parking area behind a factory, slaps two pieces of meat on a chair and declares, “This is veal!” Then she twirls off en pointe.
Baffling, right? Perhaps Bausch and/or Wenders are making the point that we’re all meat, fat and muscle that must inevitably break down. But an artist spends her life proving we’re more than that, too, using these fallible bodies to convey her profundities.
These dancers speak of Bausch with a sense of love and mystery, though data and details remain in short supply. They recall only enigmatic comments: “Remember to scare me” or “Do not forget how strong you are.” This sounds awfully artsy as I write it, but they seem to have understood what she wanted.
Bausch seldom speaks here. She died in 2009, when Wenders undertook the film, and we hear and see her only in archival black-and-white footage. She moves through one signature piece, willowy and wearing a look of happy concentration. “Yes,” she seems to say to us, “this dance is hard to do and hard to understand if you insist on using your mind. Rely on body and soul, and it’ll all make sense.”