I did not know the name or brilliance of Philippina Bausch until I saw “Pina” – a documentary dedicated to her and titled with her nickname.
I had, however, seen Pina before. Where, on stage? No, in movie – Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her.”
What I saw of her in that movie I never forgot. She – at least I think it was her – performed “Café Muller” as Almodóvar’s leading man wept in the audience. The sentimental Spanish gentleman in that film is moved to tears by the dance, which goes like this:
Pina (scarecrow skinny, loose dress, eyes closed) runs across a stage filled with randomly-placed chairs, each of which is knocked over by a man running before the dancer. The crack and tumble of the assaulted chairs produces a startling soundtrack over which Pina, imprisoned in a fit of emotional pain, scurries, seizes and swoons.
This is no “Dirty Dancing,” and the documentary makes this pretty clear. The emotions and ideas depicted in Pina’s dances (and those of her students) are either explosive and strange or subtle and quirky in a just-so-slightly-grinning way.
“Pina” starts with a such a grin. You are in a 3D theater – the movie is in 3D, I suppose, to simulate a theatrical experience – and a lone dancer takes the stage performing a ditty in which she expresses each of the seasons with a single movement. (Incidentally, the one for winter – a close-fisted shiver with the hands shaking under the chin – is familiar to any Minnesotan). The lone dancer is then accompanied by a procession of dancers doing the same ditty. This procession, full of personalities you get to know, weaves about the 3D stage and the narrative of the documentary.
After this seasonal introduction the movie goes straight to spring with an epic – outstanding, awesome, brutal – dance set to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” As soon as I saw this, the movie had me hooked. The way Pina has women dance in this makes the primal drums in your blood begin to thump. Imagine the fairer sex clapping their fore arms together with all the energy and defiance of mammalian nature as grains from the sand-covered stage turn to mud in their glistening sweat. It’s lovely, really. The dance makes you reconsider the metaphor of woman as flower.
Speaking of structure, the documentary is divided between big dances, such as the “Rite” and “Café Muller,” and little dances. These little ones are performed in small groups or individually by the people with whom Pina worked. They pepper “Pina” with personality and they lend the movie a way for you know the great choreographer mostly through her work.
The result of this structure is that you see Pina’s genius in movement and how it affected those who were close to her. In this way, the documentary is really a love letter to Pina written in the language of dance.
As you might expect, some parts of that letter are stronger than others. Luckily, some dances are cool and some are funny – such as the one where a woman dances on her tippy-toes before a smokestack with slices of veal stuffed into her ballet slippers.
Taken together the dances are impressive in the vaguest sense. That is to say: they hint strongly at big feelings. As for myself, I saw things that looked like the joy of trust, the straight jacket of an unhealthy relationship, and the fun in the flick of a finger snap.
See “Pina” if you, like me, don’t know too much about modern dance besides what you see on TV talent shows. It’s a remarkable experience – visually foreign but emotionally familiar.
“Pina” is mostly in German. It’s screening at the Walker Art Center on Fed. 1.