Dance is the art form with which I have the least experience, so in discussing a pair of dance films, I will strive to fake it as little as possible. The first observation to make about the choreography of Pina Bausch is that, while eccentric and sometimes harsh to unaccustomed eyes, it is never anything but accessible. In fact, without having any context about its place in the constellation of modern dance, I find that I love everything about it. Filled to overflowing with character and wit, her pieces always seem to connect with me even if I can’t quite put into words what they mean. As visual, motion-based expression, dance is a close relative of cinema, so it’s appropriate that Bausch’s creations were committed to film on at least two notable occasions: near the beginning of her fame, and then soon after her death. Documentary in intent, these films are more than simple records of stage performances. Their distinct styles reflect their creators and manage to merge the two art forms into one.
Chantal Akerman’s Un jour Pina a demandé… (One Day Pina Asked…) is an hour-long made-for-TV documentary from 1983. Wim Wenders’ Pina is a 3D spectacle from 2011, completed at the urging of Bausch’s company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, two years after her death from cancer. Watching the two back-to-back, one notices that at least a few dancers appear in both films. Several particular styles of dance carry from one film to the next, such as a single-file march in which the dancers perform various arm movements in unison (in Pina, this dance symbolizes the passing of the seasons and becomes a poignant recurring motif) or a pas de deux in which lovers embrace and perform a series of significant gestures, first slowly and then accelerating into an anxious frenzy.
Only one specific dance appears in both films, though: a portion of Bausch’s 1978 piece Kontakthof. In it, an unmoving female dancer (Nazareth Panadero in both films) is swarmed by a group of men who perform G-rated physical violations, such as rubbing her belly, massaging her shoulders, and tweaking her nose, all to her silent discomfort. The specifics of this dance seem almost improvised, but they create the same effect in each film, so this would be the most obvious place to start when considering how the filmmaking styles diverge. In One Day Pina Asked…, the scene is captured in a single take that stays on Panadero from the waist up. In Pina, eight cuts are used to show the scene from roughly three different distances: close-up, full-body shot, and an even longer shot that takes in the whole stage and the heads of the first couple rows of the audience. The first technique is a single-minded focus on mood, and the second is the coverage impulse, a desire not to miss anything.
Chantal Akerman used the limitations of the boxy TV frame to her advantage, keeping the viewer’s eye trained on the most interesting performer while suggesting further activity just outside the field of vision. She was a director not known for showy camera moves, and this film contains numerous examples of the camera being placed just so and not budging — often in front of a doorframe that segments the image, guiding the eye even more firmly. Akerman’s approach to documentary is to capture silent activity (the rituals of makeup, hairspray, tying a tie) and mostly eschew interviews, though a couple dancers speak briefly, as do Bausch and the director herself. The overall feel is of a group that has reached artistic prominence but is still experimenting and trying to prove itself. As I hope is apparent by this point, the definition of dance here goes beyond traditional rhythmic swaying. It’s any physical expression, including stillness, and even sign language is incorporated. Lutz Förster rehearses for the camera his ASL rendition of the Gershwin brothers’ “The Man I Love,” and later performs it on stage. Akerman’s tight framing has an amusing and somewhat eerie effect in the latter scene, as Förster’s dark suit blends into the black background so well that he looks like a head with a tiny ice-cream-cone-shaped body, a pair of disembodied hands floating around him.
Pina, as I said, is a flashier technical accomplishment. The 3D has an obvious practical use — geometry is very important to these performances. Wenders’ more expansive palette allows him to expound on Bausch’s role in modern art’s project to make art an immersive, everyday experience. Stereoscopy plays a part in this, as well, as the camera reveals stationary objects to be somehow part of the dance. While the editing betrays an impulse to record a lifetime’s worth of material all at once, rushing from one thing to the next, there is also an elegant incorporation of archival footage. Editing is cinema’s unreproducible tool, and it’s used a couple times here to create hybridized performances. A group of young dancers is, with a cut, replaced by an older group in roughly the same costumes, standing in the same places and completing the motion the first group started. There are a fair number of brief solo performances in this film, accompanied by some of the many short interview segments that eulogize Bausch. In one of my favorites, a woman with a pillow steps into an elevated train car with stiff movements, making some extremely cool robotic sound effects.
Pina Bausch’s work is about love and loneliness. I can confidently say that much. There are potent emotional expressions in each of these films. In One Day Pina Asked…, a medium-sized woman sits at a table, furiously biting into and spitting out an apple. Pina begins with an interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by gesticulating male and female dancers on an arena of red sand. These works are mostly straight-faced, but humor isn’t entirely absent (Akerman includes a couple instances of audience laughter). The sensation is of a good-natured wonder at what the human body can be made to communicate. Wenders’ film goes so far as to explain that choreography is about expressing what words can’t. This puts a certain spin on the ending of Akerman’s film, in which Bausch is asked to tell her thoughts on the future and gives a halting response. Thus the earlier film looks ahead and the later one looks back. The two find a lovely harmony in their shared appreciation for a beloved artist.