I’d better fess up before going any further with this – I don’t know much about dance, and usually find watching it either unbearably tedious or hilariously pretentious. Better choose my steps carefully. Writing about dancing is like singing about architecture, or something like that.
Pina was conceived as a joint project between film-maker Wim Wenders and the highly regarded experimental choreographer Pina Bausch, but Bausch’s death in 2009 just before filming was due to start meant that the film has ended up as a tribute to her, and to her work. It’s by no means a traditional documentary. There’s pretty much nothing in the way of biography or history, and the only thoughts we hear about Bausch are those of her dancers, and these tend to be either testimonials to her genius, and pretty subjective ones at that. There are a few archive clips of Bausch dancing and workshopping, but these aren’t given much context. I knew nothing about her before seeing the film, and I could tell you barely anything now.
This doesn’t really matter though, because the bulk of the film is made up of extracts from some very well staged and shot performances of dance pieces worked out by Bausch and her regular dancers, and these are more than enough to hold the attention of even a philistine like me. These works are miles away from formal ballet: they’re physical, sensual, sometimes potentially quite dangerous, often exposing human fragility. A dancer may fall to the ground, only to be caught in the nick of time, or may execute rapid movements across a floor filled with wooden chairs, which are whipped out of the way and then stacked precariously for someone else to dive through. The women are made to seem particularly vulnerable: in the opening interpretation of The Rite Of Spring there’s an almost palpable threat as an alpha male demands a sacrifice from a terrified female group, and in another piece a woman is beset and rudely handled by a clutch of over a dozen men. Bausch seemed to be fascinated by the elements and primal forces, and some of the pieces use fine soil or water to stunning effect. In one piece the dancers are hurling themselves around on a stage sloshing with water that is being poured down on them in a simulation of a rainstorm. God knows what the Health and Safety officers thought.
There’s also a fair amount of deadpan humour on display, particularly when the dances move out of the big warehouse-like settings and into the real world. There are a couple of absurdist moments on an urban commuter train, and there’s the strange juxtaposition of a dancer performing an intense routine at a busy traffic junction. The film is being presented in 3D at cinemas and, as in Werner Herzog’s recent Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, the technique here seems artistically justified as it does help you pick out and differentiate foreground and background dancers in the more complicated pieces.
So in the end, rather surprisingly for me, I found Pina funny, affecting and sometimes quite spectacular, with only the non-dancey talky bits letting it down. Definitely worth seeing on a big screen, and paying extra for the funny glasses.