A woman wearing little more than an accordion stands on stage and shouts, “Soon it will be spring again!”
What an inspiring announcement. The world’s dark stage will be transformed with life and color. And so begins Pina—director Wim Wenders’ tribute to German choreographer Pina Bausch—one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life at the movies.
Buy two tickets. Bring someone who doubts that movies can surprise us anymore. Invite someone who, like me, has never appreciated modern dance, and you may see them leave the theater with more music in their steps. Bring somebody who isn’t yet excited about stereoscopic cinema; they’ll change their minds.
Awakened to the power of dance by Bausch’s work, Wim Wenders talked with her about capturing her work on film, but was frustrated in trying to translate her magic to the screen. Then he saw the 3D concert film U23D. He called Bausch immediately. He’d found the solution.
Before I go on, full disclosure: Wim Wenders directed my favorite film — 1987’s Palme d’Or-winning Wings of Desire. His films since then have been intermittently rewarding, but I’ll go see anything he directs. His meandering search for beauty and transcendence is compelling.
In Wings of Desire, as Damiel the Angel makes notes in a little black book, longing to understand the mystery of human experience, he’s awestruck by a graceful trapeze artist who he watches, unseen.
Miraculously, she remains suspended.
Pina reminds me of that movie. Bausch is the trapeze artist, dazzling us with risky invention. (Her brand of dance has earned its own distinction: tanztheater, or "dance theater.") Wenders is the spellbound angel, the camera his gaze.
But hard as it is to believe, Pina fell.
Seven days before shooting began, Bausch was diagnosed with cancer. Five days later, she died. She was 68.
Wenders’ decision to abandon the production was overruled by the dancers. Making the movie became a way to raise her from the dead in a passionate expression of gratitude and love.
In a post-screening interview, Wenders recalled a friend saying, “Watching these dancers is like watching the disciples turn into apostles.”
They do speak in tongues—a cross-cultural sign language. So many nationalities, ages, personalities, sizes, and shapes—these dancers are as fascinating as anything Wenders has captured with his wide-eyed camera. (The movie stands as an inadvertent but persuasive rebuke to Hollywood’s obsession with youth and glamour.)
Their unpredictable, sophisticated, sometimes troubling dances are often punctuated with whimsy. Two men spit water at each other like mischievous fountains. A woman trounces a pillow—King Kong versus Marshmallow. A dog snaps at a tap-dancer’s heels. A woman lays her head on a glass tabletop while a stream runs beneath it like a river of dreams.
In “The Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky’s music fuels theatrics on a peat-covered stage. Dancers claw at the dirt in fitful sleep, then rise, stained. In "Café Müller," men in suits desperately shove tables and chairs aside, clearing paths for other dancers who seem to be sleepwalking — or better, sleep-lurching. In "Full Moon,” rain splashes on a dark stage, where dancers fling arcs of water from buckets into the air. The environments dance too.
There’s dance everywhere. On traffic islands in Berlin. Beneath and within monorail trains that tour Bausch’s own Wuppertal neighborhood. Against backdrops of vivid graffiti. In a glass room, where dancers seem to play with sunlight.
Such surreality can be as impenetrable as a foreign film without subtitles. But what surprised me was how, even if I couldn’t make sense of the scenarios, I began to feel strong emotions. “The tiniest detail matters,” says one of the dancers, quoting Bausch. “It’s all a language that you can learn to read.”
A woman who seems to be asleep is surrounded by men who prod, poke, caress, and crowd her. They pinch her like leather furniture, toggle her nose like a light switch. They tug at her clothes. One rubs himself against her; another bites his way down her arm.
Scenes like these can lead to myriad interpretations. Me, I thought of Madonna’s music video for “Material Girl.” Remember how she pranced and flaunted her figure in a crowd of drooling, tuxedoed admirers? This seemed more truthful—Woman as Object, and men, happy to objectify her, becoming ‘consumers’ in the word’s worst sense.
A man in a suit directs a couple—Sleepwalkers? Blind? Deaf?—towards each other, and then seeks to fold them together in a loving embrace. The two seem drained of strength, unable to hold each other. They fumble, groping. They become increasingly desperate. They go on collapsing.
As they struggle and fail, something of my own experience is called forth to complete it. I know this story. If you have ever tried to love someone, weak and broken and clumsy as you are, you may recognize it too.
Some say they’d prefer to see entire dances, uncut. But this movie is a dance. Each excerpt reveals a new idea or an individual dancer’s discoveries. It whets our appetite for more. Pina was like a house: one with “an attic full of treasures,” says one of her dancers.
Several of her dancers take turns in silent close-up, thinking about what they learned from Pina. As they do, their expressions become dances. We hear fleeting voice-overs, as though we’re angels listening in on their thoughts.
“You always felt more than human working with Pina.” “Everything I tried or pretended to be disappeared under her gaze.” Cheesy? Perhaps. But wouldn’t we sound sentimental describing teachers who transformed us?
Near the end, we watch Pina dance. Remember Hamlet words about ghosts? “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Pina was fragile, almost ghostly. Yet, through her own body and her company, she found a vocabulary for things too mysterious, too large to be caught in the net of our feeble lexicon.
I’m beginning to make some sense of it. And as the film plays, I feel like Damiel—invisible, scribbling observations about these magnificent subjects in my own black journal, awestruck.