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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF ’11 Review: Pina

One of my favorite films of this year’s TIFF so far is Wim Wenders terrific 3-D documentary, Pina, a visually evocative, stunningly lovely tribute to legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch.

If you are inclined to enjoy the language of dance, and you like to see terrific, creative choreography that utilizes all the subtleties of movement to both tell story and convey emotion in the way that a master wordsmith crafts a novel, you will not want to miss seeing this film, even if you’ve never heard of Pina Bausch and her dance troupe, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

Bausch revolutionized expressionist dance with her meticulously choreographed and intimate works, including “Rites of Spring” and “Cafe Muller,” both seen here. As we learn in the film, Pina’s choreography tended to use objects like tables and chairs (“Cafe Muller”) and things of nature — water, large rocks, even dirt laid out on the stage (as with “Rites of Spring”) for her dancers to interact with, move over, around and through.

Repetition was a frequent Pina stylistic motif as well, and Wenders shows us this in ways that drive home why this repetition works so effectively, book-ending the film with her dancers walking peacefully, repeating hand gestures symbolizing spring … summer … autumn … winter, with blissful facial expressions that reminded me of the way people look when they’re chanting Buddhist chants at a Tibetan monastery.

It’s as if through their gestures, symbolizing and acknowledging the life-and-death cycle of the seasons, they are ritualistically saying farewell to their beloved leader, who died suddenly of cancer in 2009. And they look, all of them, as if they — and Pina — are in on some secret rhythm of life and nature that they’re letting the rest of us in on. Repetition is used frequently in other Pina works to evoke different emotions, particularly when the gestures or movements start out slowly and then cycle, faster and faster and faster, or slower and slower and slower, conveying a sense of urgency or intimacy among her players.

Pina was also interested in exploring relationships between men and women, and much of her choreography is built around these ideas: dancers moving together, moving apart, or two of them clinging desperately to each other while a third rhythmically separates them; or sensually rolling around the dirt in “Rites of Spring,” tossing it onto each others’ bodies, or moving through and around chairs and tables angrily, emphatically, in “Cafe Muller.” Every nuance of facial expression, every subtlety of hand gesture, every tiny movement, means something; Pina defied convention, defined dance as more than just dance, but as theater in which every small part matters to the whole.

Mostly, though, Pina is just a beautiful, moving film that’s as much about the expressionist dance form into which the choreographer breathed life as it is about the woman herself. Every choice Wenders makes as a director here is about keeping dance at the center of the story; there are no interviews with people who knew Pina in her childhood talking about how she started dancing at an early age, or what her passions were outside the theater of the stage. Pina’s life work was about dance, and so Wenders chooses to keep the focus on what she did, on the legacy she left behind, allowing the work itself to speak for who she was and the audience to discern from that the whys and wherefores of what drove her passion.

Simple, flowing costumes that don’t detract from the movements of bodies abound, and where much of the dance world seems to focus on youth and on female dancers, in particular, who present a certain body type, Pina’s dancers span the ages, with dancers who were a part of her troupe for decades dancing alongside younger members who wish, perhaps, that they’d had more years to learn from her how to find and express themselves through the joy of moving those bodies in very particular ways to evoke very particular emotions.

It’s worth mentioning that while I’m not generally much of a fan of 3-D, Wenders puts it to good use here in making you feel as though you are right there watching these dancers perform live. He also very smartly forgoes the typical “talking head” interviews, instead keeping his camera tight on the faces of the dancers as they reminisce in voice-over about what it was like to work with Pina. The love with which they speak of her, the ways in which they tell their stories of Pina helping them to find the emotion in the movement, to find ways to express joy and fear and sorrow through dance, is far more effective than a more pedestrian film would have been at evoking that dance is about tapping into emotion by being bold and courageous, about laying bare your soul and allowing the world a glimpse inside you, and perhaps most of all, about conveying the universality of the experience of being human by expressing those emotions and relationships through dance.

In some ways, Pina reminded me of John Turturro’s Passione, which I caught here at TIFF last year. Where Passione told the story of a a place through music and dance, though, Pina tells the story of a woman whose unique vision and passion transformed what “dance” means, transforming movement into theatrical, poetic explorations of love, intimacy and relationships.

Wenders has made a fitting tribute to an icon with this terrific, stunningly beautiful film. Immerse yourself in the imagery and wonder of Pina’s dancers bringing her choreography to life before you, sit back and allow the emotion each dance evokes to wash over you and fill your soul. This, my friends, is what dance is supposed to do, and Wenders succeeds quite brilliantly in conveying the unique contribution Pina made to the art form through this film. Making film about someone as legendary to her field as Pina was (and is) requires telling this story in a way that’s as rigorously demanding, relentlessly intelligent, and passionatelly creative as its subject, and that is exactly what Wenders has done here. Bravo.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon