Intimacy, energy, passion and tension all feature prominently in the work of Pina Bausch. At one point a dancer’s head is caught by her partner literally centimetres from a concrete floor. She drops towards the ground in what seems like an uncontrolled plummet only to be saved by her partner’s hands without flinching. Dance theatre is a dangerous business, at times.
Bausch, who died in 2009, is remembered by members of her company Tanztheater Wuppertal in this portrait of her work by Wim Wenders. Its focus is the work, not the woman that Bausch was, or ‘Pina’ as she is lovingly named by her ‘family’ of dancers. In his director’s interview, Wenders acknowledges that she did not want to be interviewed before her death and that she was never looking to explain or justify her work. She desired for it to stand on its own without supplementary explanation. It’s sufficient that her company account for her influence in their own affectionate and respectful terms.
Wenders informs us that he filmed hours and hours of talking head footage of the company – allowing them to talk and talk – and then ruthlessly edited their comments into sound bites. This was intended to create a pared down feel to the documentary, giving it a dream-like quality in places, overlaying commentary with film of the dancers rehearsing and performing.
What was Bausch’s influence and why is she so fondly remembered? For me it comes down to her fusion of theatre and dance. Such elements of dance that provoke tension and drama for the viewer are crystallized into her performances in different ways. The footage shows risk-taking, athleticism, quirkiness and above all, expression. This is Expressionism in physical form. The amount of communication that the dancers’ bodies are capable of is staggering. The boundaries and rigidity of classical and modern forms are constantly broken – the company utilise whatever is necessary it seems to make the point, in the moment. They use props, voice, breath, percussive body noise, and at one point even put meat in their ballet shoes, to bring things into being.
Another exciting thing about this form of dance theatre is the limitless possibilities available. Bausch’s work came about through pure invention, not held by conventional narrative. The music is modern or classical, the layout of the stage unexpected. The dancers become soaked with water, or covered with dirt and dust. They dance on the edge of freeways and intersections in cities, beside power stations, on roofs, in parks and woodland. Bausch, they remember, loved the different elements.
She was also inclusive. Many of her dancers do not fit the accepted ‘type’ found in ballet companies and elsewhere. They are all nationalities and ethnicities, and especially inspiring, they are all ages. Many of them had been with Bausch for decades and the beauty of their experience is on show.
If the great teacher of ‘corporeal’ mime, Etienne Decroux (instructor of Marcel Marceau), was correct when he stated that mime was of the earth and dance of the air, then Bausch is the bridge between the two disciplines, in my view. She made a connection that is unique and reinvigorated dance theatre. Her influences on performance are widespread, bringing in such diverse areas as the physical vocabulary used in commercials, music videos, and by the Cirque du Soleil.
Wenders’ camerawork and editing takes the viewer close to the performances and suggests, but does not impose, a reading of their construction. He briefly shows behind-the-scenes action, but overall allows the work its own space and concentrates on the relationships of the dancers. This method would, one imagines, lend itself well to 3D, as the film is available and was shown in cinemas in that format. Again, it demonstrates the ability of Bausch’s style to embrace the new.
The extras are simply the interview with Wenders, but the official website includes some other fascinating ‘making of’ shorts.