The Paradox of Pina 3D — the portrait of the artist in '2D'

Cinephiles have probably taken a glimpse of the work of the German modern dance choreographer, Pina Bausch (1940-2009), before come across Pina (Wenders, 2011) recently, albeit they might not be aware of the legendary figure by the time. I am referring to an early scene in Hable con ella (Almodóvar, 2002), a sexual-charged reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. In this brief but pivotal sequence, two of the protagonists are watching Café Müller, one of the choreographer's masterpieces, in a theatre. Like many other films featuring characters as audience/ spectators by Almodóvar, the scene with its ballet of gazes is about the act of looking and we are invited to be a part of it. Nevertheless, it is the stunning choreography and the eloquent movements of the dancers catch our eyes and become the spectacle within the scene. Narrative is thus temporarily suspended. Even though one has no prior knowledge of modern dance, I doubt there will be any difficulties for him/ her to appreciate the sublimated beauty of the piece or even deeply moved by it like the above characters do. Therefore, it is not unnatural for one to think: if such an indirect rendering of the art of Bausch is proved to be so effective [1], Pina 3D, a supposedly more faithful and direct record of the master's art (and made by her friend, Wenders, as well), would be a more captivating visual feast, a spellbinding 3D experience and an inspiring insight into the world of Pina Bausch which ultimately preserves the aura of the performances of her company (Tanztheater).

Or is it only what we wish?

This audience expectation is actually built up by the trailer of the film. Accompanied by the intertitles ('is it DANCE/ is it THEATRE/ or is it just LIFE/ LOVE/ FREEDOM/ STRUGGLE/ LONGING/ JOY/ REUNION/ BEAUTY/ STRENGTH'), the imagery is a series of breathtaking dancing sequences extracted from the film which corresponds to the Bausch-ian thematics mentioned above. As a result, one inevitably has the impression that the film is a documentary of the major works of the choreographer, if not in their entirety. While it is true that some of the words ('DANCE' and 'THEATRE') reinforce this notion of the film as a 'canned theatre', the rest (LOVE, FREEDOM, etc), on the other hand, somehow suggests the narrativizing tendency of Pina. Originally conceived as a 'road movie' which 'would have followed her [Bausch] in rehearsals, watched her give notes to the dancers' and 'gone on tour with her to Asia and South America' [2], the film perhaps would have more narrative elements than it has now, only if Bausch did not untimely pass away two days before the shooting of the film due to cancer.

Audience who endorses the obvious message ('canned theatre') sent out by the trailer would probably upset by the scattering and disorienting nature of the dancing sequences. They are never given names (quite an inconvenience for those who are unfamiliar with Bausch's works) or commented. Furthermore, some of them are cut abruptly and only return after a considerable time slot. For hardcore-Bausch-devotees or viewers who are looking for a seamless and total Bausch-ian choreographic experience, the film maybe a disappointment but this fragmentary nature should not be only regarded a weakness as it is arguably an attempt to elevate Pina from a visually-arresting reproduction of reality to a cinematic experiment of stereoscopicity. Great documentaries, for instance, Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) and Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922) always have a fictional side. Thus the continuity of the dance sequences in Pina is disrupted in order to make way for the development of narrativity. The most salient feature for this purpose is the 'West Ends Blues' parade of the company which appears roughly at the beginning, middle and end of the film. It functions not only as a thread that connects all the scattered pieces in Pina, thus tightens up the 'narrative' but also tracks the spatial trajectory of the film. While most of the performances are rendered inside the theatre earlier in the film, they are increasingly displaced into various locations in Wuppertal as the parade goes 'off-stage'. Providing a new context for the dances is essentially a way to invite us to make out potential narratives for them. For example, when two bizarre figures are (a male alien and a female android?!) having a brief encounter in the iconic monorail in the city, several numbers around or under the rail are subsequently shown as the train travels. It suggests the simultaneity of these actions and encourages the audience to make links between them. Therefore, Wuppertal is transformed into a stage for an urban musical fairytale/ fairytale musical [3].

The musical analogy not only lies on the alternation between spectacle/ non-spectacle (in this case, dance numbers/ interviews of the members in Tanztheater) but also through the endeavor to create a cinematic adaptation of modern ballet, rather than merely reproducing a pure theatrical spectacle. While earlier Hollywood musicals tends to integrate numbers into the bulk of the films [4], later musicals such as An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951) and Royal Wedding (1951, Donen) utilize cinematic techniques to produce spectacles which otherwise unachievable. And this ability to make innovative use of the technology somehow becomes an implicit criterion for evaluating dance films. The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948), Carlos Saura's Flamenco trilogy and Tango (1998) are examples of critically acclaimed films that demonstrate a perfect marriage of dance and cinema.

Pina is also ambitious to synthesize the two mediums. Match-on-action is used to create the illusion of the two-way and sudden transformation between some old and young performers in a scene towards the end; some of the dancing is shown in a miniature stage like figures in a music box when two of the presumably company members are talking about their experiences with Bausch. Another synthesis the film tries to create is a genuine and productive use of stereoscopicity. In fact, dance seems agreeable to the technology. The 'how' (the medium) and the 'what' (the content) fit together. The beautiful pieces by Bausch are always recorded in vantage points with a plausible depth while the movement and physicality of the dancers are all the more intense and overwhelming with 3D. Unlike the usual 'suspension of disbelief' associated with stereoscopic films, Pina provides a seamless experience for the audience as the imagery seems so natural that they hardly aware that it is a 3D film (except in a few occasion such as the miniature sequence mentioned). If Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) is a brilliant stereoscopic film due to its appropriate use of the spatiality of the filming location and the almost static exploration of the contour of the rocks, Pina is the anti-thesis of it, even they are both pioneering works in the genre. The latter documentary is all about the dynamism of the dancing and the eloquent and restless movement of its performers.

Setting out as a film for Bausch but not about the biography of her, the dance sequences in the film are conceived as the bridge for the audience to assess the world of the choreographer and evoke the spirit of her through the bodily movement of her colleagues. But unfortunately, the spectacular side of Pina obscures its documentary aim. In other words, the 'what' (3D dance) distorts the 'how' (the form) of the film. Such an imbalance is indeed the paradox of the documentary. The dance sequences are so amazing that they become the end but not the supposedly means of the film. Another paradox is the weak and vague rendering of its subject matter. This is perhaps well epitomized by the ironic 2D footage of Bausch in a 3D film about her. She is a mysterious figure and flat character throughout Pina. Although audience can glean some of her working method and personality here and there in the interviews, the choreographer is nothing more than an obscure recollection of the members in her company. Seems to echo this notion, the footage of Bausch is presented with the self-acknowledgement as an image, a fabricated illusion: it is either shown projected on a screen in a theatre or in a small room with audience. This demystifying technique becomes the apology for the impossibility of rendering anybody, including Bausch, through cinema (or other visual medium). It is not only one of the paradoxes of the film but of any representational mode: we can only evoke Bausch as we wish her to be but not what she is.

As a documentary, the film is overshadowed and undercut by its remarkable visuals and artistic ambitions. However, even mostly marveled at the spectacle in the film, audience can also, at the same time, pick up some of the recurring themes of Bausch's choreography and it successfully brings the art of her to a wider public. With another recent documentary about Bausch, Tanzträume (Hoffmann & Linsel, 2010), the modern dance pioneer is gradually gaining more awareness outside the theatre. While the 2D imagery of Café Müller in Hable con ella eventually breaks through the fourth wall in Pina, it, nonetheless, unable to go farther than offering a spectacle. The film is undeniably a visually-stunning experiment of stereoscopicity and a perfect representation of an art form but it somehow fails to establish itself as an artwork in its own field.

Is it not paradoxical?


[1] The genius emotional cue by Almodóvar, of course, should not be neglected here. Are the close-ups of the characters not somehow suggesting our 'proper' reaction?

[2] The Guardian. 'Wim Wenders taps into 3D for documentary on Pina Bausch.', Feb 13, 2011.

[3] I am thinking of the surreal, oneiric imagery and the somnambulistic movement of the performers. So, my usage of the term has nothing to do with Rick Altman's in his seminal study of American musical.

[4] One can think of any Astaire & Rogers musicals, for example, the Night and Day number in The Gay Divorcee (Sandrich, 1934).

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