Rating: 3.75/5A reflexive defensiveness seems built into our experience of modern dance. Classical styles of dance feel by comparison to be displays of sheer elegance, the synchronization of a body’s movements to sound. Modern dance untethers these movements from the strict rhythm of the accompanying music, and with that goes the dancer’s protection from the critical eye of uneasy spectators. Now liberated, the body’s movements appear wild and uncontrolled, possibly even grotesque. In contrast to the illusion that makes us view classical styles of dance as “natural,” the experience of modern dance saddles us with an obligation to make sense of what we might perceive only as a kinetic mess. It is perhaps this obligation that makes so many people initially resistant to the world of modern dance. Wim Wenders’ new film Pina, a documentary about Pina Bausch and her dance troupe, is a charmingly playful introduction to this world, and, at every moment, it is engaged in exploring what exactly it is about modern dance that makes us react the way we do. Aided by 3D technology, Wenders uses his camera to place us intimately close to the dancers, so that there’s no easy way for us to disengage, and his sensitive approach to narrative–Bausch’s death during the filming forced Wenders to treat her mostly as a structuring absence who becomes subtext to everything we see–means that the film feels more like a story than a mere compilation of performance footage.
Wenders plunges us directly into Bausch’s world, a cosmos all its own, with a performance of a piece set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The music’s jagged and irregular rhythms inspire Bausch’s dancers to visceral, primordial movements. The display brings to the forefront what is perhaps modern dance’s most visible and confronting characteristic: in breaking down the once-tight relationship between rhythm and movement, modern dance breaks a series of taboos concerning the use of our bodies. That these taboos still thrive in our society is evident from audience and critical reactions to, say, Keira Knightley’s performance in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, where the actress contorts her face in an animalistic manner. But if anything, Bausch’s choreography, and her dancers’ performances, point us to the fundamentally uptight and limited ways we relate to our bodies in everyday life, constricting them into rigid vectors of movement.
The second ensemble performance we see, entitled Café Müller, engages with these concepts directly, portraying a seemingly haunted, almost Beckettian space in which dancers interact in highly “social” ways, albeit obliquely. During one sequence, a male dancer places a male-female couple together, facing each other, and wraps their arms around one another in an embrace. He then attempts to reshape their bodies so that the man is holding the woman in his arms, but every time he does this, she slips from his grasp onto the ground. The process repeats again and again; the effect is not merely absurd like a Beckett play but also strangely affecting. The performances tenderly articulate our own, often silenced desires to reach out in a similar manner and make contact, as well as our consequent inability to succeed in these social gestures.
One might conclude, then, that Bausch and her dance company’s performances articulate the ways in which the ingrained habits of our bodies and their movements–and, in a less abstract sense, our relationship to the world–must be overcome in order for us to more freely interact with ourselves and with one another. A recurring theme of the interviews is the dancers’ initial shyness and the way their work with Bausch opened them up to be more expressive people. This shyness might seem unexpected, as the dancers certainly place themselves in compromising positions before audiences, but shyness can also be a sensitivity to the gap between what we would like to express and what we actually succeed in expressing. The body itself becomes an interface, the plane on which expression is acted out and presented by these dancers, who seemingly push their inner thoughts and feelings out from inside themselves and onto the surface of their bodies in motion. That they do this with humor and grace, though, is what really makes Pina seem intimate and generous, an opening onto another world created so much to the scale of the interpersonal.
Pina consists mostly of performance footage and interviews, yet Wenders infuses the film with a clear sense of narrative. The story being told is one woven to the contours of the community, rather than one asking the latter to contort itself to fit inside a prefabricated narrative structure. And this story is not at all abstract: Pina’s narrative arc traces a distinct trajectory as the individual in isolation develops his or her expression outward and then proceeds to communicate with others, finally joining with them in a community. The performances are divided into solo, duo, and ensemble dances, and we can see Pina as mapping out an evolution from isolation to sociality, even if the dances are not arranged in such a strict progression. In solo and duo performances, the dancers seem to be finding ways to express their own internal language, and although the dancers are ethnically and culturally quite diverse, what they express as individuals goes a lot deeper than this level of identity. We may pick up hints of the dancers drawing from their own distinct cultural backgrounds, but this is minimal. For the most part, each dancer’s style seems superlatively unique. It’s as if each individual must first develop his or her own personal language, using it to communicate internally, before expressing this outward, and then in the larger group performances, we see the interrelationship between these languages, the way they play off each other or sometimes merge together in chorus. If we feel discomfited by viewing these performances, it is precisely because we, as an audience, are implicated in them, urged to rethink how we use our bodies to relate to one another.