Sunday, 1 April 2012


The titular Pina here is Pina Bausch, a modern dance choreographer who died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 68. For some time, she had been intending to collaborate with director Wim Wenders. Sadly she passed away as production on their joint project was already underway. Despite the loss of Bausch, Wenders completed his film, leaving the picture as both a celebration and commemoration of her work. Designed in 3D, Pina showcases Bausch’s talents through the work of her dancers as they speak candidly about her and perform her routines. For someone who was famous for letting her work speak for itself, the style of the film is apt – but can it transcend its three dimensional origins to succeed with home audiences?

Eschewing traditional documentary style, Pina has no narrative as such. Instead it presents a series of dance routines choreographed by Bausch. Each is linked to the last by a short interview with one of the dancers involved and there is little explanatory dialogue.

Whilst many of the larger dances take place on stage or in theatrical spaces, many of the smaller pieces are transported into the real world, taking place in parks, on trains or street corners. Wenders seems determined to let the craft of Pina Bausch speak for itself…

Handily for those unfamiliar with dance, Pina opens with what almost amounts to an introduction to the medium. A solitary figure appears on a bare stage and performs a very simple routine: each of four movements corresponds to one of the four seasons. It’s almost too simple, and an extremely effective way of conveying how movement can represent ideas, concepts or images to an audience. It’s also the first scene which makes you yearn for 3D – the action is set back in the stage and was clearly designed to have visual depth so as to place the viewer in the auditorium.

It’s not all as straightforward as the opening scene, though. For anyone unfamiliar with choreography, some of the scenes are difficult to understand and interpret. It’s rare that they’re anything other than visually striking – but the meaning can remain elusive. One such scene occurs early on as a group of female dancers in revealing tunics writhe sensually. Their behaviour becomes more animalistic with violent movements and quite alarming slapping noises as they use their bodies and the floor for percussion. The ritualistic nature of the action is undoubtedly powerful – although the reasons for it may remain elusive.

Scenes away from the stage are far more accessible to the layman. Taken into everyday settings and with fewer participants, the camera is able to get in amongst the dancers. Both their movements and their expressions are apparent thanks to the ability of the filmmakers to get close to the action. Some of these scenes utilise stunning settings and backdrops to create truly beautiful images. These are not always long routines – occasionally a man moving down an elevator or an intricate movement on a crowded train creates a breathtakingly seductive visual motif. Bringing dance into the real world in this way seems to contextualise it – a device for which Wenders must be applauded.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is a balletic scene set in the grounds of an industrial factory. Brashly announcing ‘this is veal’, a female dancer fills her ballet pumps with raw meat to protect her feat. She then produces a wonderfully delicate routine, which is completely at odds with the surroundings and the set-up. It’s a wonderful example of juxtaposition and perhaps a subversion of what might be expected from Bausch – a more classical dance in a modern setting.

The desire to see the film in its 3D format is particularly strong when the action takes place away from the stage. One routine filmed at a busy junction screams out to be shown in the format in which it was filmed, as a couple dance in the foreground traffic and a monorail zoom around them. It’s not often that 3D adds anything to the movie-watching experience but here it surely would. There are other such scenes, too. One of the major lures of the theatrical release was the superior use of 3D technology – meaning that the DVD version has certainly lost some of Pina’s allure.

The interviews which intersperse the action are not nearly as interesting as the action itself. Although Bausch’s dancers are fulsome in their praise, they have little to say about their mentor. Whilst she was clearly an innovator and an inspiration, her former charges offer little illumination, and her methods are hardly discussed. Little of Bausch herself is revealed and, as a result, these interludes become rather tiresome as the film progresses. It’s a shame as the expressive faces of the dancers, their skill levels and broad range of ages hint that they would have plenty to contribute verbally if offered the right encouragement.

The uninvolving nature of these interviews is too often reflected in the dancing itself. There are few concessions made to those who are not already aficionados. Dances are never named or explained, meaning that despite some striking visuals and an appreciation of the skill levels involved, it’s difficult to care very much. Whether Bausch’s untimely death might have made a difference will never be known – it would certainly have interesting to hear her input.

Pina is easy to admire, but for anyone other than contemporary dance fans it might be a little obtuse. Although the imagery is striking and the dance impressive, a little more exposition would have been hugely beneficial. As it is, fans of Pina Bausch have every reason to be delighted with Wenders’ affectionate tribute, some new fans might be acquired, but many more people will simply be left scratching their heads.

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