Walking down a dark street on a balmy Austin October night, a truck driver stopped to ask me if he knew where he was supposed to pick up some redwood trees. Normally, I would think that was an odd request, but still under the deep spell of Pina Bausch’s Nur Du (Only You), I replied calmly, “Right here.” Redwood trees, mountains of carnations, a pile of dirt or a carpet of velvet green turf, Bausch’s theatrically charged dances spilled out on otherworldly surfaces during the course of her unparalleled career. This November, Bausch’s dances will be projected in 3D in Wim Wender’s extraordinary tribute to the seminal German choreographer, Pina, one of the many arts-focused films headlining the 2011 Cinema Arts Festival, that runs Nov. 9-13 in Houston.
Pina is also part of the Festival’s international thrust, which includes films by Patricio Guzman (Chile), Zhu Wen (China) and Mahmoud Kaabour (Lebanon).
There hasn’t been this much excitement in the dance film world since Natalie Portman flapped her bloody feathered wings in Black Swan,screened at last year’s Cinema Arts Festival. In fact, Festival curator Richard Herskowitz has quite a track record for including significant dance films; in 2010, Frederick Wiseman’s, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, proved a Festival favorite.
The year was 1996 when Tanztheater Wuppertal performed Nur Du at University of Texas as part of a larger project examining Bausch’s work and contribution to dance theater history. I had the extraordinary privilege, courtesy of the Goethe Institute and UT, to spend two weeks in Austin, taking daily class with the veteran Tanztheater dancer Lutz Förster, and attending lectures on the development of dance theater. Förster not only taught us a section from Bausch’s 1980, my favorite piece of hers, but even shared some of Bausch’s psychologically rigorous creative process. Dancers coming of age during the 1980s straddled the post-modern aesthetic and the emotionally brutal edge of Bausch’s brand of depth truth telling.
Although she had a distinct dance signature, Bausch embodied a fusion of influences. She studied with German modern dance pioneer Kurt Jooss at the Folkwang School in Essen. She also spent a year at Juilliard School, where her teachers included Antony Tudor, José Limón, Alfredo Corvino and Margret Craske. As a dancer, she worked with Paul Taylor, Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer. After she returned to Germany in the late 1960s, she eventually took over Wuppertal Ballet (renamed Tanztheater Wuppertal) in 1973.
Born in 1940, Bausch lived through war, violence, epic changes in Europe, all of which played out in her work. Yet, it’s the personal nature of the dancers’ interactions that she is most remembered for. Whatever story unfolded in front of us, it was danced by real people, who delved deeply into their own lives to make something authentic happen on stage. Through athletic movement, a keen eye for set design elements, an uncanny musicality and shreds of a fractured narrative, Bausch let us in on a pre-verbal and unconscious layer of expression. Her name and the work she created while directing Tanztheater Wuppertal defined the dance/theater genre from 1970s until her sudden death on June 30, 2009, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer.
When I first heard that a Bausch film was in the works, I was excited. When I found out that it would be directed by Wenders, I was ecstatic. When I learned that Pina would be coming to Houston, well, simply starry eyed. The legendary director of Paris, Texas, The Buena Vista Social Club and numerous other films, seemed a perfect fit for the choreographer’s enigmatic world. (Wender’s wistful Wings of Desire, selected by SWAMP’s Mary Lampe as part of MFAH’s Movies Houstonians Love, screens on Nov. 7.)
I’m not surprised that Wender’s film is 3D because Bausch’s work operated on numerous dimensions, drawing from dreams, personal memory and psychological investigations of human behavior. The 3D medium may be the best way to capture her raw physicality. It was Wenders’ use of the 3D technology that originally drew Herskowitz to the film.
“His use of 3D is innovative and appropriate. The viewer is drawn into her dances.” says Herskowitz. “I’ve admired Wenders’ work for a long time, yet it’s interesting to note that his arts documentaries are among his finest works. Buena Vista Social Club was a knock out. It makes sense to include a favorite director working at full tilt.”
Herskowitz is also a Bausch fan. “I saw many of her pieces at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and have always revered her work,” he adds.
Pina includes excerpts of such ground breaking works as Cafe Muller, Le Sacre du Printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof, along with archival footage of the choreographer at work and short solo performances by her one-of-a-kind dancers. Wenders enlisted Bausch’s methodology of using questions to drive the action. The solo sections, filmed in and around Wuppertal, derive from Wenders’ inquiry into the dancers’ memories.
For years, I thought nothing of driving four hours to see her work at BAM. I’ll never forget sneezing through 1980, which sprawled out on a bed of real green grass. The film’s tag line “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost” cuts to the core of Bausch’s transcendent work. We lost a dance giant when Bausch died. One can only imagine the dances she never got to create.
Wenders’ film draws us back into Bausch’s visceral terrain, honoring her legacy in the process, and letting us take one last spin on the lawn.