Pina’s curtain call

When we look back at the disasters of the 20th century, from the slaughter in wars, to the greed of bankers and the lies of politicians, one other dirty deed may stand out in our minds as a unique piece of wickedness – the way tobacco marketers peddled their wares despite knowing that their product kills.

Addiction to nicotine led to the death of millions, among them George Harrison, Nat King Cole, Humphrey Bogart, King George VI, Sammy Davis jr and Ingrid Bergman.

Pina Bausch – one of the most important artists of the 20th century – was a chain smoker, and tobacco killed in 2009.

I’ve just seen a DVD of the documentary, Dancing Dreams, filmed a year before she died, in which she can be seen as pale, gaunt and as if she had already left the world.

A cigarette, a packet of Camels and an almost shameful little ashtray are by her side throughout many of the moments she is seen on screen.

I’m trying not to romanticise Bausch, who was not without fault. She was a cult figure with the power of a cult figure to control and manipulate.

But her imagination was so much more powerful than any harm she might have done to the admittedly fragile psyches of her dancers.

Pina makes her appearance well into the documentary, a delay that means her entry has the ka-pow impact of the late entrance of a central character at a party, or in a play or movie.

Viewers are on alert as they wait for the star, but in this case, the star makes a subtle entry. Pina’s centre-parted hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She wears glasses. Her voice is quiet, her manner casual. But those eyes still scan the rehearsal performers like beams from a lighthouse.

Until her appearance, all the drama in Dancing Dreams comes from her stressed and serious repetiteurs, two of her former dancers, Jo-Ann Endicott and Bénédicte Billiet.

Dancing Dreams shows them training 40 teenagers, aged from 14 to 18, who are to take part in Bausch’s Kontakthof, first choreographed in 1978.

It was re-worked in 2000 for performers aged 65 and over, then again in 2008 for the teenagers recruited from local high schools in Bausch’s home town, Wuppertal in Germany.

Endicott and Billiet are hard taskmistresses, driving the performers to reveal themselves and the traumatic – or at least dramatic – events in their lives. They did not know, at the outset, who Pina was, and they had never danced before.

This was always Pina’s way. What moves you? Who are you really? Show me your innermost desires and fears.

The director of the film, Anne Linsel, and the cinematographer, Rainer Hoffmann, have created a marvellous, subtle film, with no reality TV clichés, no voice overs, no hushed commentary of who will or won’t be chosen for first cast.

But the most powerful aspects of the film are the way in which the performers develop and grow in confidence and the way that Pina herself reveals much of her own background.

This film was her farewell performance in a way, although she couldn’t have known it. In 2009, the year after the film was made, she died from cancer five days after she was diagnosed with the disease.

Some things concerned me, among them the way in which Joy, the girl who was cast in the main role in the first of two casts, resembles a young Bausch, so thin and so drawn and so anxious.

Another concern was the way in which the teenage girls – lambs dressed as mutton – wore bright slashes of lipstick and swivelled their hips provocatively as they advanced towards the audience in figure-hugging satin dresses and heels.

There is much mutual touching, and a vignette in which a couple strip off to their underwear.

But while their movements are choreographed, and the same as those of the original adults and the over 65s, the spoken words were more appropriate, relating to the fears and experiences of teens.

Kontakthof, for all its phoney posing and apparent bravado, is not about seduction but an insight into the way we present ourselves to the world as desirable and our hopes that the façade we present will work.

Every part of this dance piece is a reference to Pina’s life.

Born in 1940, she grew up in her parent’s pub where she must have heard the music of pre-war German musicians whose work is the backdrop to the dance piece.

Wistful, plaintive, and evocative of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s, the soundtrack includes the Harry Lime Theme, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, and tangos and swing foxtrots by Juan Llossas, among them Abends in den Kleinen Bar (By night in a small bar), Oh Fräulein Grete and Blonde Claire.

Perhaps Pina’s mother dressed in the evening in strapless satin cocktail dresses and wore scarlet lipstick.

When the Kontakthof dancers line up to present themselves to their audience, they grimace to display their teeth, turn sideways and pull in their stomach muscles, flick back their hair, and stare with poker faces.

In Dancing Dreams, Pina explains that these gestures reminded her of auditioning decades ago in New York for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Her thoughts in the lineup are echoed by the Kontakthof dancers who silently beg: “Am I good enough? Will that do? Will you take me?”

They are good enough for Pina who allows herself a small smile as she gazes at their effort. At the curtain call of the filmed final performance, she presents each with a rose. She had no room for a cigarette in her fingers as she did so.

Dancing Dreams will be screened as part of Spring Dance at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House on September 3.

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Dancing Dreams, teenagers in Kontakthof, Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, 2008, Photo: Ursula Kaufmann

Dancing Dreams, teenagers in Kontakthof, Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, 2008, Photo: Ursula Kaufmann

Pina Bausch, in a scene from Dancing Dreams, Credit: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Dancing Dreams, teenagers in Kontakthof, Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, 2008, Photo: Ursula Kaufmann