I am a poor audience for modern dance. I’m usually a soft touch for aspirational highbrow outings, but I gave up on dance a couple years ago, and relented last year on Alvin Ailey to my embarrassed regret: it was gorgeous, but I don’t remember a move, or an emotion. I’ve had some success enjoying the work of Matthew Bourne, whose Swan Lake and Play Without Words are brassy, sexual, and most importantly, narrative. (Play Without Words adapts a 60’s mod film with a Pinter screenplay.)
But Pina was moving and riveting. A non-narrative documentary, it moves between recordings of staged pieces, dances transposed to outdoor, industrial or other non-theatrical settings, and “interviews” with the members of her Tanztheater Wuppertal—actually long shots of their still faces alongside recorded voiceovers from each dancer. Director Wim Wenders, reportedly as much of a pill about dance as I am, had developed the film and the technology with which to make it when Pina died suddenly, only five days after receiving a cancer diagnosis. The film took on a cast of tribute; there’s an air of shock at her absence.
But the work hardly smacks of grief. Yearning and sorrow sit in a powerful emotional palette alongside joy, humor, and a physicality that is necessarily erotic but above all romantic. Wender’s direction captures the level of bodily detail that Pina choreographs. Among the moves you might not have categorized as “dance” are wiggling your ears (under cardboard donkey ears), getting hair caught in your shirt, squirting water out of your mouth, and wielding a leafblower. The film frequently pulls back to show the dances in space, often on a deep proscenium stage, sometimes even including the first few rows of filled seats (in what might have been a trick of compositing). But the in situ sequences are the best, especially as synthesis of film and dance. They reminded me a little of Jesus Christ Superstar; Netflix, please make me a list of “Movies with Outdoor Dance Sequences.” In one, a woman walks onto a train car holding a giant pillow. She makes comic explosion noises with her voice while she tramples and sits on the pillow. That’s it. It’s fantastic.
Pina came out at the same time as Hugo, and the two films were hailed together as an advance for 3-D filmmaking. In Hugo, Scorcese pulled off a beautiful integration of technique and story. The cinematic language he developed portrayed the inner workings of the automaton and the giant nervous endings of the railways in their glass-and-steel palaces as freshly modern to our eyes as they might have felt to Parisians at the dawn of the 20th century. The transformation of the Lumiere brothers’ oncoming train into 3-d was sniped at by some critics who didn’t understand why a film that only existed in two-dimensions should be retconned into three, but the famed audience reaction is all the explanation the joke needs.
Pina doesn’t use 3-d with as much consciousness as Hugo. Wenders’s camera eye is superbly attentive, but his best effects come from establishing a closeness that moves beyond what a dance audience can see from even the best seats, an immersion technique entirely achievable with 2-d film and good old binocular depth perception. The surprising 3-d effects come in intimate moments, often in watching the dancers faces in their interviews, simply being in space. There are very few bodies hurtling into your face. A scene-setting shot that whisks the eye along the Wuppertal Schuebebahn suspension railway is fun roller-coaster business, but it doesn’t really advance the art. 3-d has a tendency to make depths go from an appearance of continuity to one of interrupted, spaced-out layers, like paper figures in a diorama. There’s one effect that takes clever advantage of this, when a staging of “Cafe Müller” transforms seamlessly from a theatrical staging to an actual diorama, being inspected by two dancers in a park.
That piece, “Cafe Müller”, was what got me hooked and kept me in the film. There’s a sequence in it, captured here with much less cinematic attention, in which a woman collapses in a man’s embrace, standing still until a third dancer, a man in a suit, comes and arranges her step-by-step into a pietà, from which she falls to the floor. This series of moves repeats ever faster, the fall ever more violent, until the couple begin to race through it on their own, without any help. This sequence starts at the link at 10:40 and runs about five minutes long. At the link, the dancer is Pina Bausch herself. In the film, it’s the woman who tells Wenders that Pina told her just to “get crazier.” That’s what it took. Probably more. I’m not sure. Like I said, I don’t always get dance.
What did you see, and how many dimensions did it have?
Cross-posted from The Weblog.