Pina: context and experience

Poster for film PinaThey say “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” What happens when you try to make a film about dance? It works… and it doesn’t… and it does.

Last week while in Santa Cruz we went to see the film PinaI would have wanted to see it in any case, because it’s about modern dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, and I listened to one of my dancer friends rave about her for years, but I felt particularly compelled because I heard such good things about it from Carla and Sarah. The film is billed as a documentary, though it is not a usual one. There is little footage of Bausch herself, who died mere weeks before filming began, and there is no attempt to give any kind of background to her or her work. Instead, for 103 minutes, with very few words — and in 3D — the film immerses us in 4 of Bausch’s pieces, the experiences of the dancers who perform them, and the city and surrounding areas of Wuppertal, Germany (I totally want to go there now, just so I can ride on the Schwebebahn).

Still from film PinaWhile I was watching Pina, I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. I did enjoy myself: the whole thing was stunningly gorgeous to look at, and the dances were powerful and moving and evocative. I cried twice and laughed a lot. I was overwhelmingly recalled to my feelings in 2008 when I watched Ultima Vez perform “Spiegel.” Although Wim Vandekeybus’s choreography is more explosive, and Bausch’s more thoughtful, the similarities struck me. After I watched “Spiegel” I immediately bought a ticket for the following night so I could see it again; likewise, Pina has stayed in my mind.

But I wasn’t contented while viewing, for several reasons. The first was that I knew nothing of Pina Bausch going in, except that she was an acclaimed choreographer, and I didn’t learn much else about her from the film. I wanted dates for the dance pieces, and I wanted to know how much of their film presentation came from Bausch and how much from the director, Wim Wenders. I didn’t like that we didn’t get to see her pieces in their entirety; they were all cut up. Some of them were altered for film — dancers faded away, for instance — and I have mixed feelings about that too; on one hand, the medium should definitely be used, but on the other hand, if the purpose of the film was to show Bausch’s original choreography, that purpose was defeated by such effects.

Still from "Vollmond," film Pina

In fact, these gripes were strong enough that in the car on the way home, I told Erik, “I don’t know if this movie is as good as everyone says. I mean, it’s good, but it’s not the best dance movie I’ve ever seen.” Then I considered that statement. “Actually,” I went on slowly, “maybe it is, because I can’t think of anything better.” As I thought it over, I realized I’d taken the 3D format for granted, but I should have appreciated how brilliantly it affected my experience of the film. Wenders said in an interview:

Even if you use a hand-held camera and are among the dancers, you’re still outside; you need to work in their own element. And I never thought it was space. It just never crossed my mind until I saw one of the first films in 3-D… when I saw that, I realized that was the tool we had been waiting for. It would allow us to no longer be outside looking in.

Watching Pina was like being among the dancers, either on stage or just steps away in the front row of an audience, and that was partly what made the viewing so exhilarating.

When I got home, I looked up the film, and in reading interviews with Wenders, learned what I wanted to know. Ultimately I think it’s good that the film gives no explanations and no background — or maybe it’s not good, but it’s a choice I can appreciate. I always value context, and in this case I wish I’d taken the time to look some up beforehand. But when all is said and done, nothing can substitute for an actual experience… and this film is that: a rich, thoughtful, beautiful experience.

What I wished I’d known before going:

  • Bausch is known for “tanztheater,” a style that combines dance and theater; she founded her company in 1972. She said, “I don’t care how my dancers move, but what moves them.”
  • Bausch died in 2009, five days after a cancer diagnosis, and a few weeks before shooting began for Pina. When Wenders learned of her death, he wanted to give up the project, but the dancers persuaded him to continue.
  • Bausch’s rules were “no biography, no interviews” (I’m not sure if these were her rules for the film, or in general), and she hated talking about her work. Wenders said: “Once she was talking she felt like she was betraying art.” Wenders used Bausch’s approach to choreography in writing the script for the film: ask the dancers many questions, but have them answer only in movement. He said in an interview: “The script existed but not as a written script but as a body-language script.”
  • The decision to shoot some of the dances out in the world (as opposed to on-stage) was Wenders’s, but there was precedent in some of Pina’s work.

Go see Pina. It is well worth the experience. Then come back and tell me what you think!