Can Not Know the Dancer from the Dance
Regardless of the “Café Müller” cameo in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, the woman and her art are not familiar beyond avant-garde circles, so Wim Wenders’ homage labor of love Pina will find it hard going with a general public. In the technically unique documentary, Philippina “Pina” Bausch is her field, as the field is she is the title, the life and the work inseparable, with no exposition of that life merely as such (no breath of once widowed, then partnered, one son). Her art visual and emotional, the screen hundred-six minutes has no narration, baby or family snapshots, historical footage, history, tracing of development or of change. Heads there are, but not talking ones: members of her multinational troupe sit solemnly sans printed identification, only one with the faintest hint of a smile, voicing over their stone faces in German, English, French or Portuguese.
Unlike the irrepressible Cuban warmth of the writer-director’s The Buena Vista Social Club, this hermetic account of the woman and the achievement as one and the same shows emotion, rather, in movement just as dance itself does. All beyond that is superfluous, so sets are bare grey rooms or auditoriums, a stage with a boulder and sea- and rainwater, an unnoticing urban crossroads or Suspension Line monorail or park, or a deserted industrial facility.
Long friends, the German-compatriot director and dancer spoke over years of such a film, but little coalesced until at Cannes he caught the Bono and company concert film U2 3D, that third dimension giving impetus to his attempt to capture movement in the round. Thus the stage-depth of the empty or austerely furnished areas and, from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, the backs of patently fake front-row patrons silhouetted at bottom foreground. As with many 3D releases, however, the rewards if any do not compensate for the plastic glasses.
Premièred at the Berlin Film Festival before going on to those of Telluride, Toronto and New York and selection as its country’s foreign-language Oscar submission, the project was still in the joint mapping-out stage when she died suddenly two years ago, less than one week after a cancer diagnosis.
Dedicated as “a film for Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders,” the show must go on. It includes a very few frames of her, cigarette in hand, observing or demonstrating, and does not depend on footage of public performance. Instead, solo, de-deux, -trois, -quatre, or twenty-four corps de ballet, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (formerly Wuppertal Opera Ballet) perform for the cameras a variety of her arrangements to eclectic music from jazzy riffs to modern classical.
Speaking of which latter, the subject performer/choreographer/teacher/ballet master may be compared to Austrian composer/conductor/arranger Gustav Mahler, for whom, too, the life equaled the work, “in my own blood, everything that I have experienced and endured.” Thus, speaking voiceover of Pina, her dancers reveal not a jot of personal anecdote about their leader. Rather, as anonymous as she, they reveal being in awe of her and therefore silent or disclose her method of addressing questions to them and expecting, not verbal response, but inward looks for improvisation in movement to work it out.
With some deliberate visual humor, accompanied by vivid arm-hand gestures, costumes varying from thin smocks to suits with neither shoes nor socks, her vision comes to stage- and screen-life.
That vision will reach billions next summer as part of London’s Cultural Olympiad prior to its athletic Games. Given its modern-dance theme, this film will appeal neither to that worldwide media-whipped-up audience nor to ordinary filmgoers. For non-fans, interest in Wenders’ tribute to his friend lies in its distinct format, a welcome departure from the by-the-numbers fossilization in today’s documentary deluge.
(Released by IFC Films and rated "PG" for some sensuality/partial nudity and smoking.)