Pina Bausch’s dancers – in 3D

28 April 2011 | By Juliet Burnett

Dance is given a new dimension in Wim Wenders’ new film PINA. Juliet Burnett, a senior artist with The Australian Ballet, attended an advance screening at the Sydney Opera House.

Iconic dance maker Pina Bausch and her long-time friend, film maker Wim Wenders, had been talking about making a film together for 20 years. Finally, with the advent of 3D filmmaking technology, Wenders saw a medium that could justifiably “capture the immediacy, physicality and contagiousness of Pina’s art”. Bausch’s death in 2009 (just before filming was to commence) almost dictated an unfortunate fate for their project, but Wenders eventually agreed to proceed as a means of coming to terms with his grief at the sudden loss. With Bausch’s disciples – her dancers at Tanztheater Wuppertal – he embarked upon the creation of a tribute to their leader, and a journey of healing.

Such a deeply personal purpose for making a film is apt when it concerns Pina Bausch. Using ‘dance theatre’, a unique fusion of dance, often-surreal theatrics and drama, Bausch was one of the foremost dance innovators of the 20th century. Renowned for her visceral depiction of humans and their relationships, her core themes of love, loneliness, angst and hope resonate with audiences universally.

Bausch was perhaps equally renowned for the eclectic group of dancers she chose to work for her; each dancer was utterly important, and she was meticulous in choosing them, from all over the world, younger and older. This was because the crux of Bausch’s choreographic process was the exploration of the depths of the individual dancer’s personality – to the extent that when she was creating a new work, no one but the required dancers and Bausch herself was allowed in the studio. She asked the dancers questions (“What are you longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?”) and their answers would manifest in movement, their bodies eloquently articulating previously unknown vocabulary. The conversation’s conclusion was the discovery of beautiful qualities that the dancers themselves were unaware they possessed. Their body’s language would, therefore, be formed by their own experiences, so in performance the audience could be moved by the expression of human emotion in its most raw and honest state. “I don’t care how they move, I want to know what moves them,” Bausch famously said. Wenders muses that the communication of “this existential urge that they have found is what is so touching for us as viewers.” Wenders himself says that he was brought to tears the first time he saw one of Bausch’s works.

It is appropriate then that the study of these individual dancers is the pulse of the film. We meet each dancer in front of a plain black screen, seated and motionless but for their faces, keenly etched with personal narrative, as their pre-recorded voice shares, in their mother tongue, their memory of Bausch. We are then taken to a scene of the dancer in an excerpt from one of Bausch’s pieces, many of them in a surreal urban landscape, like a traffic island in a busy intersection or onboard one of Wuppertal’s famous monorail carriages – reflective of Bausch’s belief that “dance is everywhere”.

There are also onstage excerpts from some hallmark works like her Rite of Spring (surely the most impressive part of the film in terms of the success of the 3D element, with the camera immersed onstage, participating in the action – even appropriating a dancer’s eye view), Cafe Müller and Full Moon. One of the dancers in the film tells us that Bausch saw her dancers as paints, each playing a vital role in colouring and illustrating her work – so the film’s format echoes this ethos, creating an artwork itself that vividly captures the spirit of Bausch’s art. With each dance excerpt, we are not just confronted with the dancer’s story. With the aid of 3D technology, we are absorbed in it. It’s far from self-indulgent, though; the dancer’s expression of their personal experience and story provokes a connection with the dancer, and thus a connection with our own deepest emotions. Bausch’s belief that dance was the most faithful way of communicating and expressing emotion can be appreciated more clearly with this format, too; each dancer’s memories are shared with words in their mother tongue, and we understand what they’re saying with the help of subtitles. But when they dance, the language is universal. “Words,” she used to say, “just evoke”. Bausch’s dance, even her most devastating pieces, brings us closer together. She makes us look into ourselves and realise that we all face the same existential challenges, and it’s the way in which we construe them and seek out their meaning that makes us individual, and is the very essence of life itself.

Dance, for Pina Bausch, is simply the most true and complete vocabulary any human can use to express. Our body’s instinct to move is a response to our primal urges and has the potential to be an articulation of our innermost selves. And anyone can experience it – even vicariously, as any dance lover can attest to as their heart dances in sympathy with the dancer they are watching onstage.  Or perhaps this dance is more pedestrian; walking hand-in-hand with your partner, moving in sync, hearts beating in tandem, energising each other through the sense of touch. At the end of the film, the significance of its subtitle and Pina’s famous mantra: “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost” is clear. Dance is life. Life is dance. And we are all dancers.