Monday, February 11, 2013


Back in my senior year of college I appeared in a student-directed one-act play. During a rehearsal, our director began with an exercise: Pretend your left foot is glued to the floor and attempt to work around this handicap. Move your extremities any way you must to reach that pitcher of water. Catch that runway ball.  You might imagine some pretty awkward slapstick ensued. While I understood the point of it, I felt foolish and frustrated. I was unable at the time to use this hindrance as an opportunity to find other methods of achieving a goal: practical or artistic.  I was reminded of that exercise throughout 2011's documentary PINA, though the dancers here are no slouches, and have no such difficulties.

The students of choreographer Pina Bausch take such an exercise to much greater extremes. They drape their moldable bodies across stages and each other in ways that suggest the absence of a skeleton. They ab- and adduct around in sometimes maddening patterns of repetition.  One fascinating sequence shows a woman hugging and eventually going limp within a man's embrace. Before she hits the floor, another man comes to scoop her up, back into the first man's arms. This action is repeated over a dozen times, faster and faster each time.

Director Wim Wenders began a more traditionally structured biography on Bausch but in 2009 she passed away. Wenders rethought the project and the result is a film that does not fill in the details of Bausch's life in the traditional documentary style but rather attempts to explain her through the remembrances of her proteges, of all ages.  Most vividly, through their imaginative dance. But we also hear their words, while the camera curiously shows each dancer not moving their mouths. As if Wenders (and the viewer) is reading their minds.

As you watch each sequence, you begin to your discern narratives, conveyed through every muscle movement. Little films in themselves. Some viewers may see unfettered pretension, others, raw emotion, stories. Psycho-sexual subtexts, yet at once oddly non-erotic. Passive and assertive at the same time. A common theme I witnessed: "Getting scared. Overcoming shyness. Letting go."  Several students explain how Pina sought to free the spirit within the inhibited shell. She often told them to "be scary." Accordingly, while some may see the dancers' moves as spirit filled, some may call them "demonic".

The spaces where the dancers bring the spirit of their mentor to life vary from theater stages to rehearsal rooms to city streets. Sometimes we swoop over audience members as they watch an elaborate set with a giant rock and a sweeping rainstorm, other times a stage entirely covered with dirt. The elements of earth are quite integral to their dances. One late scene in a studio shows a dancer being covered in dirt by another's shovel.

Some routines appear like avant garde takes on traditional musicals.  There's a scene in a cafe onstage where chairs are flung with adandon, another with the recreation of a high school dance -with dancers gendered off on either side of a gymnasium - gradually approaching each other with their hands and arms outward as if clawing their way. Like a barrier smash between the sexes. Oh, what stories they tell! Pina was pleased.

PINA was shown in theaters in 3-D and what an experience it must've been. The gorgeous visuals remain and are arresting at every turn. I realize that some viewers will squirm with boredom.  Many will find the entire project a giant pretension. I was mesmerized.

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