A dark-haired woman in a white nightgown - sleepwalking, demented, or simply wearing her inner life inside out - lurches across a cafe floor littered with overturned chairs and throws herself into the arms of a man in shirtsleeves, wrapping herself around him. Immediately a second man in a suit, with the harried but patient air of an overworked stage manager, accosts this couple and systematically rearranges the woman's body, this arm going here, this hand just so, a series of mysterious but intensely focused gestures climaxing in his lifting the woman up and placing her in the shirtsleeved man's arms.
No sooner is the task completed, the suited man stepping away, than the first man drops the woman's body to the floor. She springs up, once more clinging to her partner. And the suited man returns to rearrange her again. Again she's dropped to the floor, springs, clings - has her limbs reconfigured, is lifted, falls... This insane ritual repeats with increasing frenzy, and you don't wonder why, so much as identify - Are you the woman, the man who can't hold her, or the man who's trying to impose his own order on this human chaos? Possibly you've been all three, at one time or another, or seen such a scenario enacted in real life, and felt just as helpless to intercede.
I had the good fortune to experience what may have been the American premiere of Pina Bausch and her Wuppertaler Tanztheater's "Cafe Muller," of which this trio's routine is merely one moment, during the Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles in 1984. It's stayed with me ever since. See a Bausch dance like "Muller" and it's in you forever, like a benign psychic wound that never heals. Her company danced Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in that same festival, and the one thing I've never forgotten about that one is how the dancers performed it barefoot on a stage covered with rich brown dirt. You see this once, and you think, How could it ever be otherwise?
The Rite, that stubbornly modern musical assault on civilization that sounds as contemporary today as it seemed radical when first performed nearly a century ago, is one of the first of Bausch's pieces excerpted in Wim Wenders' Oscar-nominated documentary Pina. One of the many fascinations in this amazing cinematic celebration is that in terms of Bausch's work, the Rite does seem merely a starting point. Things get wilder, crazier, more deeply atavistic and intense from there, which says something about the elemental nature of both Pina and Pina.
Earth, water, air, fire - along with pain, rage, joy, and love - were fundamentals of Bausch's vocabulary, articulated on bodies as distinct as her own. The company dances through cascades of water, crawls upon rock; in one of her most notorious and hilarious riffs, a dancer performs as a woman behind her shovels dirt onto the dancer's body. And the difficulty of being - a human conflict that's about as basic as it gets - seems to have been one of her primal preoccupations.
To me, the gaunt but beautiful Pina always looked like a haunted Holocaust survivor, or a walking Egon Schiele drawing. Though she died shortly before shooting was scheduled to begin, another fascination in this film is how, despite her being ostensibly gone in her physical being, she's brought to life so palpably by her dedicated troupe. You're witnessing a true resurrection in the midst of memorial.
It's a testament to her teaching, and Pina is a mini-master class in pedagogy. Though the choregrapher was always invoking her own physical gesture through the bodies of others, Bausch had the uncanny ability to say just the right thing to a given dancer, the thing each one needed to hear in order to express his or her own essence, to explore further, stretch farther. To one particularly poised and patrician male dancer she said, a seemingly casual remark tossed off in passing, "Remember, you have to scare me." Cue epiphany.
We hear these anecdotes as each of the dancers has a solo moment in front of the camera, sitting silently while quotes from their pre-recorded interviews are played. With this technique, Wenders appears to be consciously referencing his eavesdropping angels from Wings of Desire, and it's true to his overall methodology here, which is magical and scientific - perfectly attuned to his subject, which is so much about both the physical and metaphysical transport of bodies through space.
The location shooting is genius, integrating Bausch's choreography with the mundane world - a passing tram car is as much a performer as the dancers on the street below it - in a way that echoes Bausch's aesthetic, her dancers seeming to have one foot in the quotidian and the other in an alternate dimension. Wenders' camera swoops and glides in and around Bausch's dancers with unerring sympathetic grace. It may be true that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," but Pina isn't a film about dance. It's a dance with dance.
As such, its use of 3D is transcendental. If ever a movie demanded donning the glasses and watching a big screen, it's Pina. If you're a writer and/or artist, it'll inspire you in the best ways. Pina Bausch's work is both deeply disturbing and mordantly funny (in this, Bausch, Beckett, and Kafka strike me as a kind of post-modern Three Stooges). It slips past rationality and the defenses of language to get you where you live. What Wenders has wrought with this heartfelt tribute is no minor miracle, so you owe it to yourself to go see it. Now.