Pina in 3D: Australian premiere and Q & A

Pina Bausch, says one of her dancers, is “like a house with an attic full of treasures”. And so, too, is Pina in 3D, the tribute to her life and work.

This remarkable film premiered in Australia on Sunday night at the Sydney Opera House, with its director, Wim Wenders, in the audience on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut, the co-host of the event for this final evening of the German Film Festival.

The ‘house’ that was Pina was, both fragile and sturdy, surreal and sometimes sinister, full of memories and anguish that could suddenly turn into joy and just as suddenly revert to pain.

Wenders’ film honours her work but it’s also true to her way of seeing and interpreting the world, with few words but with intense body language, facial expression, intimacy with the audience and visual surprises. Just as her dancers often left the stage to approach the theatre audience, the film breaks the fourth wall and reaches out to the audience placing them -through a sophisticated use of 3D – in the sphere of the dancers themselves.

You watch the dancers but seem to move among them, a sensation so well described by Nick James in The Observer, as “floating bodiless through more solid phantoms”.

The film, shot after Pina died in June 2009, is full of phantoms, not least the archival film of her rehearsing and dancing, most notably in her masterpiece, the autobiographical Café Müller.

One of the four works in the film, it premiered in 1978 with Pina herself in the pivotal role of a sleepwalker, walking through memories of her early years as a child living with her parents who ran a modest restaurant with a small hotel attached.

The setting is a large room full of chairs that are shoved and pushed as four people with their eyes closed and two with their eyes open, shuffle, stagger, drift, embrace, fight, and fall through the spaces between chairs and tables and against the high walls.

In archival footage, we see Pina dancing in a long white slip. The bones of her rib cage are clearly visible, her face gaunt. As one dancer says in a voiceover, she looked as though she had “risen from the dead…she danced like she had a hole in her tummy”.

The other three works in Pina in 3D are Rite of Spring (1975), Kontakthof (1978) and Vollmond (2006), with long excerpts performed by the ensemble of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, most of whom worked with Pina for many years.

Together with Café Müller, they had been added to the repertoire of the company for the 2009/2010 season.
The four works were also shot in their entirety and the Pina Bausch Foundation will hold them as an archival record.

With Wenders, Pina had worked on the concept of the film and had selected the pieces to be filmed. Wenders’ company, Road Movies, began pre-production in Wuppertal early in 2009 but six months later, two days before shooting was to begin, Pina died, aged 68, five days after being diagnosed with cancer.

The night of her death, Wenders told the audience on Sunday, the performance went on.

“They cried on stage” but followed the direction of Pina herself who always said “we have to dance. That was Pina’s answer to everything”.

After a month, they continued filming and the film, said Wenders, became “the way they came to terms with grief. They could give something back to Pina”.

Some of her work already existed on film and excerpts from Café Müller and Masurca Fogo, were featured in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002), while Bausch appeared in Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On (1983).

But nothing has ever matched Pina in 3D, a work made up of five elements –performances before an audience in the original home of the company, (the Tanztheater Wuppertal), one performance (Kontakthof) staged without an audience in a school gym in Wuppertal, a series of solos and duets in various outdoor locations in and around Wuppertal, and footage of the dancers who say nothing directly to the camera but show the audience, through their expressions, some of their innermost thoughts about themselves and their memories of working with Pina.

These silent profiles have voiceovers by the dancers all speaking in their first language.

The film opens on the Tanztheater stage with an excerpt from Pina’s work Nelken. A woman dressed in nothing but white briefs and an accordion speaks of the seasons, while the ensemble strolls on stage in one of the processional lines that Pina loved, gesturing to symbolise the seasons, with winter shown by the shaking of fists, as if the dancers are trying to keep warm.

The 3D effect brings them close to the audience. We can feel they are brushing past us, pushing away a sheer curtain as they walk by.

Throughout the film, the dancers’ bodies are revealed in all their perfection and imperfection. They seem so close that one can see the details of their skin, the outline of the ligaments or tendons, the fragility of twitching or rippling hands. And then there’s the breathing, and in the case of The Rite of Spring, the whimpering of the women as they tremble and wait to see who will be the Chosen One.

Peter Pabst, the set designer of Tanztheater Wuppertal and art director of the film has said that “crossing the border between the stage and the viewer is an important part of the choreography. The dancers are constantly engaged with the audience, even physically coming down from the stage.

“It has always played a crucial role for Pina Bausch that her pieces are completed first in the heads, eyes, heart and in the feelings of the audience”. The film stays close to that long-standing connection.

In both the set works and the individual solos and duets, a recurring movement is a fall, often a fall into another’s arms. In the first duet, a woman in a long evening dress seems close to crashing to the ground as she falls in a plank like pose, but is caught by the man at the last moment.

Other recurring gestures, movements or costume details are revelatory – pulled back skin, grimacing, teeth baring in a humourless smile, bare feet, hair weaving and tossing, the straps of evening dresses falling off shoulders, ribs and nipples showing through thin fabrics.

Pina loved to dress the female dancers in silk or taffeta evening dresses and heels, and the men in suits, particularly in Kontakthof which is set in a dance hall in which the couples display themselves, parade for one another, swivel their hips, pair off, jive frantically, and pose for a photographer with a tripod,

Pina staged this work three times, first for her ensemble, then for men and women over 65, and then for teenagers, and she had agreed to let Wenders blend footage of all three groups for the film.

The merging of the three ages dramatically heightens the impact of the work, giving the impression that the dancers’ lives are set on fast forward, but not so fast that we can’t see the sadness, pride, frenzy and self consciousness of each generation.

Among the images that linger are the individual performances in which the dancers show an aspect of themselves and snippets of the movements they had rehearsed with Pina, among them:

A poignant and brief pas de deux performed on a traffic island, close to a backdrop of a McDonalds’ sign. (The dancers used to congregate there – there’s not a lot to do in Wuppertal!)

A tap dancing segment in which the dancer’s own dog frantically circles the man’s feet, yelping as if in accompaniment.

A dancer who places neat slivers of meat into her pointe shoes then skims across the ground against a grey and brown industrial background of towers and girders.

A man in a long, ill-fitting white tutu, pulled on a trolley through an abandoned tunnel. He plies, he falls, he plies again.

And Pina’s inscrutable sayings, sprinkled throughout, linger too, among them “your fragility is your strength”, “go on searching”, “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost” and “dance for love”.

At the Q&A session after the premiere, Wenders held the fort well, extending his answers with his own take on Pina in all her aspects.

Among his responses:

“I had been talking to Pina for more than 20 years about making a film but I wasn’t sure I could fulfil her expectations”.

“I always felt an invisible screen between the physicality of dance and what I could put on the screen. Pina understood, she knew I wasn’t copping out, she said ‘keep thinking about it’.”

“Pina created more than 40 pieces. She added a new one every year and felt all the pieces had to be kept alive. She was longing to find a way to preserve it somehow. One day I found it in technology”.

“I found the film U2 in 3D at the Cannes film festival in 2007. I put on the glasses and it was clear from the first moment. It opened up a big door in space. I called Pina as soon as the credits went up”.

At Tanztheater Wuppertal there was “no role playing character parts. Dancers were totally and utterly themselves. They have no acting training. Pina didn’t want acting”.

“We are used to having perfect athletes [as dancers]. Pina said ‘I don’t care about how dancers move, it’s what moves them’.”

“A friend of mine said watching these dancers is like watching the disciples turn into apostles”.

The film opens for general release in the UK on Friday and in Australia in July.