By the time Pina Bausch died in 2009, she had become perhaps the most distinctive voice in modern dance. Born in Germany in 1940, the ambitious dancer became so prominent that she was running her own dance school by her early 30s. Her “Tanztheater” as it became known, combined elements that weren’t common in modern dance of that era, but as seen in this wonderful documentary about her work, Pina’s real talents went beyond perfecting the human body and relishing in the beauty of its movements. Bausch, it seems had an eye that could see beyond the purely physical.
Directed by her long time friend Wim Wenders, Pina is a lovely nonfiction film that like Bausch defies what we’re supposed to expect from the filmmaking technique. It would’ve made sense for Wenders to make a biographical movie in which he went back in time to trace Bausch’s origins. He could’ve then used archival footage and allowed us to see her evolution as an artist and performer, but what he does instead is to let her work speak for itself.
Pina consists of a series of setpieces which are meant to represent the best of Bausch’s work. Throughout the running time, we see dancers interact with elements that look and feel completely out of place, but eventually come to serve a beautiful purpose. There is something surreal about the way in which a massive boulder, which recalls elements of legend, suddenly becomes unimportant as it faces tenacious dancers who use it as an instrument of their performance. Perhaps Bausch wasn’t a storyteller in a traditional sense, but there’s myriad stories in each of these performances; they all have the quality of dreams.
The dancers of course display extraordinary technique and you might be tempted to rewind, pause, zoom and try to dissect just precisely how everything here was achieved (the film was also released in 3D which added an even more impressive dimension to the altogether majestic properties of the work). Setpiece after setpiece we are mystified by how Pina found, or maybe created unity in disparate elements. One of the most beautiful sequences in the movie involves a frail looking woman, whose long arms recall the languidness of willows or maybe the necks of swans. As the woman moves her arms around, we are faced with images that immediately force us to think about the beauty that is to be found in the duality of the sexes and how we all may contain a part of everybody else.
Pina had a knack for finding true beauty in each and every one of her subjects and we can see them referring to her as more than a dance teacher, role model or even confidante, as a spiritual guide who allowed them to see truths about themselves that were occult to others. Of course her dancers loved her, how could they not when she made them push the boundaries of the human body and for a second achieve what can only be called immortality.
Wenders had been working on a documentary film about Bausch before her untimely death and it’s proof to her legacy how it was her very own students who insisted Wenders completed the project. The director of course imbues the film with the haunting sensibility of his fiction work. His camera captures faces with such precision that we think that we’re allowed to see into each person who sits in front of it, sometimes he films them just sitting there and we are sure we can listen to their voices.
Eventually some of them do speak and they share their experiences with Pina, how she inspired them to believe in themselves, if only in order to perfect their art. There isn’t much of a conflict or a lesson to be learned while watching Pina. It is one of those rare pieces of art where you simply can’t explain the reason for the elation you feel, but find yourself too inspired to linger on the irrelevance of its mystery.
The Criterion Collection has released Pina in a fantastic DVD set which also includes deleted scenes accompanied by commentary with Wenders. A making of featurette – which runs for almost an hour – has Wenders reveal why some of the scenes were shot in 3D, while giving us an informative look at everything that happened behind the cameras.
There are also some extra behind the scenes footage, without subtitles, which add to the backstage goodies. Wenders also provides superb commentary on the movie, explaining how he shot some of the most complicated scenes as well as trying to come up with his own version of what each of the dances means. His knowledge of theater and stage design is truly remarkable.
Rounding up the set is a lovely booklet which features pieces on Bausch and Wenders, as well as gorgeous portraits of the dancers in the film.