Monday, March 12, 2012

Put On Your Red Shoes and Dance With Me

"How can we know the dancer from the dance?" --William Butler Yeats

"It appears to be monumental only because it's art." -- Christo

Choreographer Pina Bausch is unknown to me. This isn't surprising. Of all the arts, dance is the one about which I know the least. So for me walking into Wim Wenders's new film about her was walking into terra incognito. I like seeing unfamiliar things in movies, actually. Show me something new and I am content. Or as another choreographer, Serge Diaghilev, once implored Jean Cocteau: "Astonish me."

Wenders's film, Pina (2011), acts as a eulogy and as a celebration of the choreographer. Pina died in 2009, shortly before the film commenced filming. Wenders assembles Pina's dance company and re-stages key performances and mostly gets out of the way, though not entirely. He interrupts an opening movement of The Rite of Spring with jarring cutaways to footage of the choreographer herself when it might have been wiser to let the dance itself play on. It mostly smooths itself out thereafter. This isn't a complete document of her various productions, after all, so all of the productions in the film are necessarily truncated in some way.

What does this movie tell me about Pina's work? It tells me that it's essentially primal, connected to environments created on the stage as impediments or as means of expression unto themselves. She has her dancers move across stages covered in soil, in ankle-deep water, across a huge boulder, or on a stage littered with dozens of chairs. It tells me that Pina's work is primarily concerned with relations between the sexes and with the impediments between them. It tells me that her work is surprisingly genderqueer, often subverting what it is to be masculine and feminine (particularly in dance). There's a surprising diversity among her dancers, too, and not just ethnically. There's a wide range of ages on stage, which is kind of a rebuke to the way dance famously devours its dancers as they age. This isn't a film that places a premium on conventional beauty. It finds beauty in the way bodies move rather than in what they look like at rest. Also, there's no body fat in this movie. None.

What else? Maybe it's because I'm coming out of True/False, where I saw several films about art and artists, but Pina suggests a globalized arts community and a blurring of the lines between dance, performance art, other visual and performing arts. This is all to the good.

The movie itself is organized around four movements, each corresponding to one of Pina's famous works. Interspersed among these movements are smaller vignettes that spotlight some of her individual dancers. These often take the dancers out into the world at large, where their performance often shades more into performance art than dance, though Wenders misses an opportunity here to connect art with audience (which is usually the point of performance art). But then, maybe that's not the point. There's such an emphasis on environments created on stage that it's a logical extrapolation to take a step into environments outside the proscenium. I don't know if Pina herself took her dancers out into the world like this, but I hope so. Unfortunately, film doesn't say one way or another and no mention of it can be found on Pina's wikipedia page. The movie itself can be infuriatingly obscure sometimes. Part of this arises, I think, from Pina Bausch's own absence from the film. She's like Charles Foster Kane in this respect. We're getting everything about her at second hand.

Some individual images stuck in my head after seeing this: A dancer putting cuts of veal into her shoes before spending what seems like an eternity en pointe. This, set in an industrial environment. You can make your own meaning about this, I guess, but it strikes me as an interesting indictment of dance itself. Also: A dancer at the end of a tether testing her boundaries before gliding into a dance at her periphery. Male dancers in a glassed in environment in a dance that suggests co-dependence. A male dancer in a flowered dress. Anything that demolishes expectations of gender. That's just me, though. I suspect that other audiences will also take away from this what they bring to it. That's the nature of art these days. It's not a monologue, so much as it's a conversation.

Wenders filmed all of this in 3-D, but the little arts theater where I saw it doesn't have that capability. If I squint, I can see why Wenders insisted on 3-D, but I don't know that it would have improved my own experience of the movie. That's only a supposition from my own prejudices, though and your mileage may vary.


J Luis Rivera said...

I've had many opportunities to catch this film and have failed each one of them. I'll end up watching it on DVD I'm afraid.

I got very interested in the way you say Wenders uses environment, as I've always been fascinated by Wenders' ability to bring cities come alive. His Berlin, his Lisboa, his Havana, they are all so vibrant in life that often engulf the characters. I've been meaning to writer something about it, but fate always puts obstacles to that.

Ryan McNeil said...

Great piece!

One quick note about the 3-D: It enabled the piece to achieve something a 2-D film about dance can't, and that is to accurately convey how the performance makes use of the space it inhabits...specifically where depth is concerned.

I hadn't thought about that when sitting down to watch, but only takes about five minutes for that unexpected advantage to become very clear.