Thursday, October 6, 2011

Re-Membering Pina

Yesterday afternoon Richard and I attended a sold-out screening of Pina, Wim Wenders' 3D homage to the dance-theatre legacy of Pina Bausch. The film was playing just up the street at the Park as part of a special presentation by this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.

Before her untimely death in 2009, Bausch--from her nowheresville outpost at the state theatre in Wuppertal, an industrial town in northwestern Germany--revolutionized contemporary dance: in part by jettisoning completely the core principles of dance composition; by forging a company that was as much a family as it was a working collective; and by making an emotional connection with her audiences (whether positive or negative) central to her aesthetic. Let me explain a little better what I mean by these three prongs by reproducing here the first three paragraphs of an essay I recently completed on Bausch and her contributions to contemporary dance-theatre:

When, soon after taking over the directorship of Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1973, Pina Bausch famously commented that she was less interested in how people moved than in what moved them, she was first and foremost announcing her own choreographic break with conventional dance composition as the virtuosic arrangement and execution of steps. Yet she was also reciprocally hailing audience members whose engagements with dance are deeply felt, but who may not be able to articulate precisely what about the movement they have watched has so transported (or alienated) them. In both instances the different limits placed upon access to or deployment of a technical dance vocabulary to say all there is to say in or of a given work is offset by a shared emotional vocabulary, one that is still profoundly, viscerally, corporeal, but that refuses to abstract, divide between, or pit against the other, performers’ and audience members’ subjective experiences of the work. Thus, starting in the late 1970s, with works like Blaubart (1977) and Kontakthof (1978), Bausch developed a new rehearsal process, one roughly akin to the emotional memory exercises of a Stanislavski or a Strasberg. That is, she threw away her dancers’ safety net of having movement patterns set directly upon their bodies, and asked them instead to first respond as an ensemble to a series of questions or prompts that could cover everything from personal relationships, memories, and moods to social situations, customs, and behaviors. The dancers’ responses might involve or incorporate movement, but just as frequently they took the form of stories told, or of images seized upon, or of objects proffered. These elements, some jettisoned, others refined and expanded, would then function as the basic building blocks for the piece, its emotional architecture. Indeed, the affective force of Bausch’s dance-theatre comes as much from its reveling in theatrical expressiveness—scenography and design, costumes, music and sound, spoken text—as it does from its eschewing of some of the more repressive canons of dance.

This dialectic demands as much of an emotional investment from Bausch’s audience as it does from her performers. One cannot sit in passive anticipation of pretty steps at a Bausch premiere. Rather, in often simultaneous scenes of serial repetition one can expect to be assaulted by an equally serial (and often simultaneous) set of affects—shame, joy, anger, disgust, hate, love, fear, pity, tenderness—as they replay, in particular, a social history of the gendered body. That body, Bausch makes clear, is always at the (physical) mercy of the other; but the vulnerability, she also suggests, is shared. And so in her work Bausch is relentless in soliciting our attention and awareness not just of the bodies and bodily behavior on stage, but of our own. Again, this happens mostly on an emotive rather than a cognitive plane. Even when we cannot make sense of Bausch’s work, Norbert Servos claims, we still maintain a “’sense connection’” to it. Even when we cannot explain our response to a given piece or sequence, we are still responding. In this way, as Servos also suggests, the boundary between rehearsal and performance dissolves, and just as the performers lay bare their creative process on stage, so must we in the audience give up something of ourselves (energy, autonomy, objectivity, distance) in our reception of it. It is an intensely co-dependent relationship, to say the least. In the world of contemporary dance, one tends either to love Bausch’s work or to hate it. One rarely remains indifferent. And just as the fierce loyalty Bausch inspired in her dancers has left them understandably bereft in the wake of her sudden death in 2009, so have many of her fans been plunged into a prolonged period of mourning.

How is it that I have come to share in this grief? I, who have only ever experienced Bausch’s work via video or grainy YouTube clips or the thick description of print reviews and criticism—why have I been so affected by her death? And in ways that, at least to me, far exceed the more temporary and vicarious forms of mourning one is wont to perform upon the passing of a great artist? These questions are what initially motivated the writing of my essay on Bausch and dance-theatre as a form, and they are also ones I took with me into yesterday’s film.

I am unquestionably biased, but I do honestly think that Wenders has crafted an exemplary tribute to Bausch, one that manages simultaneously to capture and document some of her most iconic works and, as crucially, to allow the performers who danced them to express (in words and in movement) the range and intensity of their feelings for their lost mentor. Those performers span virtually the entirety of Bausch’s 35 years in Wuppertal, with veterans like Meryl Tankard, Josephine Anne Endicott, and Dominique Mercy offering up their testimonials and dancing some of their signature roles (including Mercy in his tutu from Nelken) alongside the younger, newer members of the company, a polyglot rainbow united in their love for Bausch and their total immersion in her movement vocabulary. It’s worth noting, in this regard, that Bausch’s death actually came in the middle of filming, and so the tone of the work obviously changed. Wenders’ unifying conceit between dance excerpts is to shoot a close-up head shot of each of the featured dancers, with their words about Bausch (spoken in their native language) heard in voice-over and subtitled accordingly.

But it is the dance that takes centre stage, made fleshly and impossibly intimate thanks to the 3D technology. Wenders' use of 3D never feels gimmicky or intrusive. Rather he uses it in the same way that he uses various exterior spaces in and around Wuppertal as backdrops: to make Bausch’s choreography pop, to leap off the screen and grab hold of us kinaesthetically—in other words, to move us (physically and emotionally), as the best live dance is meant to do. In this regard, the filmie in me was surprised at just how restrained some of Wenders’ shot-making was. In pieces like Vollmond, where the dancers famously frolic in ankle-deep water and leap from a giant rock stage left, there are lots of pans and quick edits, and the drops of water from when the dancers kick it or throw it seem to land in our laps. Yet in the classic chamber work Café Müller, Wenders is quite content for his camera to remain static for long periods, letting us take in that work’s famous chair-cluttered mise-en-scène. And in the opening “chorus line” from Kontakthof (which I was pleased to see featured not only in its professional Wuppertal company version, but also those that Bausch set on senior citizens and teenagers from the community), Wenders shoots in long shot, so that we actually see the seats from the intradiagetic auditorium, an uncanny visual experience in 3D, as those seats necessarily start to merge with the those in the Park theatre, to the point where I couldn’t tell at times whether movement in the rows was happening onscreen or off.

I can’t possibly do justice to all of the works from the Bausch repertoire featured in the film, but I will say that it was wonderful that Wenders begins with a big long excerpt from Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This work, from 1975, was the last one that Bausch created in a “classically balletic” style, but also announced a clear shift in her aesthetic: the peaty soil on the stage over which the dancers move; the explicitly gendered politics of the work; the emotional demands it places on performers and audience members alike. Wenders’ film traffics in those demands as well, not least in those film-within-a-film sequences when he brings both groups together to watch ghostly apparitions of Bausch dancing and creating.

I can think of no greater memorial to the woman and her work.


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