Watch Over The River Rhine
A Review of Oscar-Nominated Documentary “Pina”
20 February 2012
by Dean Speer
Wuppertal in the German north Rhine area is famously known for two things. One is the world’s first monorail, constructed in 1900 and still working smoothly today – cars suspended below a fixed rail track line. The other is its unique Tanztheater, created by choreographer Pina Bausch [1940-2009].
Playing at Seattle’s historic Cinerama Theater – owned and restored by Paul Allen and home of chocolate popcorn, “Pina” is a documentary that plays well both as a movie and as a dance film. Begun shortly before her passing, it focuses on her work and, other than giving us all-too-brief film clips and a few spoken words, provides no biographical information at all. Rather, it allows the excerpts from her dances to speak and resonate for her. Many of the company dancers do tell us about their working relationship to Bausch and do so in whatever their own native language may be – German, French, Spanish, English, Japanese -- and we hear their tributes while the camera plays on their respective faces.
I enjoyed the few clips where we got to see her move, interact and direct her dancers, and get a glimpse into her process.
We were also blessed to have gone to the screening we did with someone, an opera singer friend, who had closely worked with and knew many of the company dancers, including Bausch herself, so having Pina’s studio space pointed out – above the round McDonald’s -- and other insider stories helped put our celluloid journey to Wuppertal in context and was fun. One of these stories was why the child of two company members – late in the film this young adult who describes herself as a child of the company is interviewed – was named what she was named. Apparently Bausch thought of this appellation and insisted this couple name her that. This friend also told us that some of Bausch’s work would go on for three or four hours and that she liked her music “...very loud!”
Never having really seen very much – none all the way through – of Bausch's work, I was impressed with its creativity, stark edginess and risk-taking. Some was quite beautiful while other sections of pieces were harsh and dark and purposefully strange. Lest we think she was only dour and didn’t have a sense of humor, one of her “line” dances is repeated as a sort of connective thread throughout the film in various settings – on stage, on steps, and on a hilltop that had the unison dancers making silly gestures and faces, and snapping their fingers in a weird kind of rumba/conga dance. One example of the best of a lighter moment was when one of the dancers made his own gesture/movement sequence for joy and how this was incorporated.
She used repetition and changes of speed/tempo as one of her principal development tools, which was used very effectively in her disturbing “Café Muller.”
She wasn’t afraid to push the theatrical envelope, using large props [a boulder for instance], sand filling the stage floor for her “Rite of Spring,” or water pouring down. When I was a dance major in college, some of us would ask ourselves “What is dance?” “How do we define it?” Bausch expanded these boundaries and now what seemed, to me, so new and exciting in the ‘70s is accepted and while still interesting, doesn’t necessarily generate the kind of buzz it used to.
Never the less, if you’ve not seen this genre, “Pina” is a great way to be exposed to and enjoy it without having to commit to going overseas.