“I’m not so interested in how they move as in what moves them”
Is it dance? Is it theatre? Or is it… Life
Soon after the curtains went up on the stage of the Liceu, back in 2008, I realized that the world I was introduced in was far different from a sublime dimension, where ethereal dance movements are characterized by perfection.
The world I was introduced in was my own.
Where people stumble, fall, bump onto obstacles and fly high only to fall with greater force on the ground.
That is the world where the performers of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller belong. A space where people get together, find love or clash against each other. At the background of the stage the choreographer herself was observing them with her eyes closed throughout the performance; her body movements echoed the feelings lived by the dancers, filtered through the experience of her life –a rich language that transmitted the charge of her emotions onto the audience, that carried it away after the performance ended.
Like any other experience, the experience of a performance is hard to recreate. Postmodern performance is characterized by an aesthetic of impermanence, where the qualities of memory, inheritance and repeatability give way to immediacy and uniqueness. In performance art the artwork is not some text or image, but the happening or event and the way it is perceived by the audience.
This creates an endless depth of meaning to the artwork, depending on how it was seen and perceived by each person in the audience.
The experience can only be documented; it is impossible to relive it. However, with the right media and approach, it can sometimes be revived –onstage or on screen.
This is something that is largely achieved in Wim Wenders’ Pina, that brings to the audience the work of Pina Bausch, who managed to open up new roads in performance and dance through her work.
As in Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders once more surpasses the conventional documentary language, in order to bring life to a different means of artistic expression on film; whereas in Buena Vista he managed to give the experience of music on film, here he brings the experience of dance. This is achieved by intersecting footage of Pina Bausch and presentations of Café Müller, Le Sacre du Printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof, with personal memories from her collaborators and performances of the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal throughout the city and the surrounding areas of Wuppertal.
These performances convert the entire city into a stage: the dancers perform on the side of the road, enter the trains, run through empty landscapes, making it thus easier for the audience to decipher the language of Pina Bausch and to identify with it –since it is presented as a language spoken in the real, everyday world.
Although the camera eye only gives one perspective to the audience –the perspective of the director- and therefore sets limits to the ways one can perceive the work presented, opening up the performance space to the city manages to break those limits. Moreover, the camera moves within the performance space in a way that it introduces the viewers in this space, as if they were moving among the dancers. In a way, this reflects Pina Bausch’s approach to the issue of the distinction between dancers and audience, which she tried to abolish by often making her dancers leave the stage to interact with the viewers.
Pina’s gaze: Trails of presence within absence
Pina is a film that was first conceived as a collaboration between Wim Wenders and Pina Bausch, after the film director watched Pina’s Café Müller in 1985. Despite the fact that the friendship between the two German artists flourished within the years, the idea remained for many years uncompleted. The reason was that Wenders couldn’t find the tools to transfer the art of Pina Bausch on stage, until the emergence of 3D digital technology. The two German creators started working on the project in early 2009, but, just three months before the actual shooting began, Pina unexpectedly died of cancer.
Instead of seeing Pina’s loss as an insurmountable chasm, Wenders sought to project the trails of her presence after her death, managing to capture her reflection in the eyes of the people who remember her. Because, when someone doesn’t believe in religious and metaphysical explanations for the “life after […]”, what actually remains after a person is gone is memory, creation and the impact her (or his) life has had on others.
Wenders manages to capture this by setting aside the conventional for documentaries form of the interview, where the narrator talks to the camera, in favor of close ups to the faces of her dancers, who remain still and silent, as we hear their narrations in voice over –where the voice we hear is their own. The voice over gives the impression that the viewer is actually reading the performers’ minds and sees their memories come to life in the sequence that follows each narration.
In these sequences we see the dancers perform a piece by Pina Bausch, chosen according to the impact she has had on them or the feeling that her memory and her loss causes on them. Some performances are drowned in pain, effort, desperation, but some others express love, celebration and joy.
The intersecting archive material from Pina Bausch staring at the camera, or her laconic words remembered by her collaborators manage to bring her back to life. The viewers have the impression that they adopt Pina’s position and that their eyes become Pina’s eyes, looking on the performers of her Dance Theatre company.
The structure of the film and the way Wim Wenders manages to revive Pina’s presence results in an emotional film that celebrates Pina’ life; the lamentation of her loss is just one simple side note of sadness, within a film that is overwhelmed by life, love and joy.
From the tridimensional stage to the 3D film
Pina has been hailed as “the world’s first 3D art house film”. And although in a few years such a feature might go unnoticed –just like nobody comments if a film is in colour or if it is a “talkie”, as they might have done when these “novelties” were introduced- today it is hard to ignore it.
The transition to 3D filming means that a new cinematographic language is dawning; whereas the use of 3D in animation constitutes no particular problem, when it comes to real images, it presents the creator with the challenge of opening a path in an unchartered territory. Apart from the fact that the technology is still under development, one extra difficulty is to overcome the problems within the medium in order to represent action in a lifelike way; for example, it is difficult to give a sense of continuity to a movement that is very fast –like some very intense choreographies within the film- and to represent the illusion of the tridimensional space.
When it comes to the interior spaces of the theatrical stage, the illusion works perfectly; the dramatic lights of the stage and the fact that the movement is already orchestrated in separate grounds –foreground, middle and background- help create the impression of an infinite space, where the viewer walks among the dancers and participates in the action. The images and the colors in the interior spaces become very vivid, as if they were on the theatrical stage.
On the other hand, when the action moves to exterior spaces, the flaws of the medium can be more easily perceived: the continuity of space feels orchestrated like a theatrical stage –whereas the real world has multiple ground in all directions-, the lines might seem discontinuous and the endless details of the cityscape distract the viewer from the action. It is a hyperrealistic view that competes with the poetic movements of the performance, at times undermeaning it.
However, this disadvantage is annulled when the dancers move from the city to the open space of the countryside. Wim Wenders is the absolute master when it comes to capturing the essence and sensation of a wide space or an open sky. In the desert scenes of Until the End of the World, or the skyline images in Wings of Desire Wenders shows an unparalleled talent in giving an infinite depth to the line of the horizon, and in putting into film frame the contrast between a red earth and a deep blue sky, or an empty sky and a vivid city. This talent manages to turn the novelty of the 3D filming in Pina to an even greater advantage. The dancers in the countryside move in a way that defines and defies the line of the horizon –defining it with consecutive movements right on the edge and defying it as they dance on the edge of a cliff, facing the void beneath.
Overall, the question of 3D is more than a matter of technology. It is also a question of learning again how to “see” the world on the cinematographic screen. As the first audiences learnt to recognize a motion picture as a reflection of the world, and, a few decades later, accepted the convention that the audio was coming from the motion picture on the screen –even though it actually came from the speakers in the cinema-, today’s viewers are faced with the challenge to recognize a tridimensional space on the screen and to disregard any flaws –that also exist in conventional film, but we have learnt to ignore them.
Pina is doubtlessly a unique film; but in the end, this is not so much an outcome of the technological novelties. What makes it an exceptional film is the poetic vision of Wenders and his capability to revive Pina Bausch’s presence, to present the magnitude of her artistic work and to introduce the viewer to a world that is poetic, but still real.
Pina (2011). Film. Directed by Wim Wenders.
Climenhaga, Royd (2009), Pina Bausch, New York: Routledge.
Connor, Steven (1989), Postmodernist Culture: an Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.