Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pina: Keep Searching

She told a dancer in her troupe, "Keep searching." She didn't say where or for what or even if the dancer was on the right track. Just to keep searching. The documentary, Pina, a tribute to modern dance pioneer Pina Bausch, directed by Wim Wenders, evokes that sentiment beautifully. Every dancer in it speaks lovingly of Pina's direction, always vague and seemingly formless but important and meaningful at the same time. The documentary was intended to star Pina but she died two days before shooting began. As a tribute to her, the dancers continued on, filming all the dance sequences as prepared and, as a result, the film starred Pina after all.

As a work of interpretive documentary filmmaking, the film succeeds effortlessly. Dance is blended with interviews in which the interviewees are shown but their interviewed statements heard in voice-over, while they stare at us and ponder. The locations, from factory to street and river to forest, provide extraordinary backdrops for the beautiful and mesmerizing movements of the dancers and more than once I thought, "I want to be there. Now." The dances are not explained nor given any context whatsoever. Occasionally, there will be a brief snippet of a discussion about the physical origins of a piece ("She said there must be more chairs.") but that's as close to explanation as we get. Any more and there'd be no point to showing the dance. And it was the dance that Pina used to communicate all that she couldn't with words.  And that expression wasn't meant to be specific or prosaic but expansive and personal.

But the film chooses to provide Pina's communication cinematically, not theatrically, and there, especially for dancers and dance fans alike, is the film's only problem of presentation. As Fred Astaire once said, "Either the camera will dance, or I will." In Pina, the camera dances. A lot.

Wim Wenders is a brilliantly visual filmmaker and that gift, at times, gets in the way of the dance. We get a tantalizing snippet, maybe even a full minute or two, of a dance in which we can see the dancers in full frame before, suddenly, the camera cuts to close-up or a different angle or a tracking shot or, worse yet, just that part of the body that is moving. The film is filled with little non-contextual exercises in movement that are short and hypnotic and yet Wenders keeps moving the damn camera. At one point one of the dancers stands before us in a pinstripe suit, standing erect with only his fingers and hands moving up and down along his torso. To watch him full on, of course, is the point. The hands and fingers are only meaningful in relationship to the whole motionless body behind them. And yet, Wenders repeatedly cuts in to close-ups of the hands. It could have been one of the best spots in the movie. Instead, it now resides in my memory as one of the most infuriating.

This doesn't happen with every dance sequence (and the dances are communicated so strongly it hardly matters) but it does with many of them. It happens enough that when the camera does settle on a dancer the viewer wonders why it didn't for the rest. Worst of all, in the opening performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the camera, after starting out static, moves in to several close-ups of the dancers' faces. Yes, closeups of the dancers' faces. In a dance. On their faces. Which aren't dancing. Fortunately, the faces are beautiful to look at, filled with emotion, lines, dirt and age.

All that said, I still found the experience to be a tremendous one and one I'd happily repeat. The musical choices are terrific (I immediately bought the soundtrack upon return from the theatre and am listening to it as I write this), the dancers are wonderful and Pina Bausch's inspired and emotionally powerful choreography is a wonder to behold. And more than anything, the dancers all seemed genuinely connected and deeply in love with Pina and their art form. Yes, I wish Wenders had held that camera still for much of the dance but no, it didn't spoil the experience. It didn't because, dammit, as bothersome as it is to have a camera move around during a dance, Wenders does make the moves cinematically interesting on their own and uses them in such a way as to hint at hidden moments that a stage audience couldn't necessarily see. But mainly it worked because the spirit and soul on display are undeniable and seductive and inspiring all at once. When we get to the final frame we can only be moved by Pina's final and ghostly plea, "dance, dance or we are lost."