Culture & Conversation

Danse Macabre

Perhaps I should have smoked a joint before this one. Alas, I exited this 3D experimental dance film clouded in sober confusion. What in hell was up with the hippo, and why did the lovely dancer in silk fondle him with such graceful abandon? She’s way out of his league, though he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s only plastic.

Pina is a gorgeous Fantasia-like pastiche of cavorting and interviews with the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch ensemble. Bausch, an influential choreographer in modern dance, died during production in 2009 and from the sound of things, could have been a scintillating cult leader. Dancers gaze off-screen in fawning interviews, their eyes twinkling with inscrutable knowing: Pina was something, she was, with her threadbare instructions and how she just got into your soul. It would have been nice if they had discussed the choreographies or the roots of contemporary dance (this reviewer knows little about it), but instead I was left with the feeling of awkwardly entertaining a gaggle of Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door.

Director Wim Wenders presents many of Bausch’s choreographies in cityscapes, a nice change from the cold and abstracted stage. The dances are brimming with emotion and you never know what’s coming next, but I will say this: something about abandoned scraps of cloth gets these performers really fired up. I wish I could say why the women insist on the granny panties, but someone should pass them some cheeseburgers before some unfortunate soul gets stabbed with a collarbone. (1)

Of course, the men do need to hurl them around unhampered. In one routine, man drops woman, woman springs up and grips him like a mutant leech until she is returned to his cradled arms. Drop, grip, cradle and repeat until the routine blurs with the movement. It’s an evocative representation of codependency, but the poor woman must get terribly bruised. Perhaps she should try spoiling herself at the spa, or start a book club.

The train choreography haunts me still. A dancer conjures The Grudge with black hair askew and bizarre guttural noises. It’s a portent of terrible things when someone enters public transit growling and stick-bug walks to their seat with a pillow, but the Zen-looking man with elf ears at the back looks undisturbed. Embrace raw emotion. Growl at it.

Another scrap of material turns up without warning and gets them all a-twitter again. The dancers prance about it like the Holy Grail.

I suppose the trouble with contemporary dance, to my inexperienced eyes, is that it so often looks like any fool could do it. It’s like the free verse of poetry, so easy that it becomes exponentially harder to do it well. I could fondle a hippo with the best of these dancers, and that just compromised the magic for me.

Worth $16.50 if you’re into dancing/flailing.

(footnote – 1) It is never polite to remark on a lady’s scant physique, unless mocking the bodies of strangers a half-globe away.


Pina is currently playing at the AMC 22 Forum.


  • 4 Responses to “Danse Macabre”

    1. Michael

      I was once in a museum full of giant Matisse cutouts. They were free of confining frames, and filled entire walls. It was gorgeous. A woman came in, rolled her eyes, turned to her young daughter and said: "You could have made this." The young girl was still in awe, and saw the beauty of the giant shapes and figures because of, rather than despite, their simplicity.

      For a more thoughtful approach to this film, see the interview with Wim Wenders published by Rover last fall:

    2. Megan Stewart

      It seems as though you struggled to get beyond shallow first impressions with this film and let those granny panties distract you from the profound emotions and ideas being expressed through dance. The company’s work, (reduced in this review to “contemporary convulsing” and “flailing”) created some incredibly powerful representations of how we as human beings are constantly striving for connection, and the range of acts we do to attain it…shout, disobey, reach, run, leap, embrace.

      The choreography did not need to be explained in technical terms. Many of the dancers provided ample explanation of the choreography by discussing what Pina pushed them to do in their work: embrace the strength in fragility, pull themselves up by the hair, dance for love. Those brief words said more than any kind of technical explanation ever could.

      And sure, it may look like any fool could do it, but try spending two hours simply walking on tiptoes and you might change your mind.

      If you’re mining for laughs in your film reviews, I’d say another selection would be better served…

    3. Sarah

      Thank you for your comments all (even the Don Cherry one).

      In fact I LOVE flailing. I do it all the time. So yes, I enjoyed most of the choreographies and recommend Pina to anyone who feels the same about dance. It is a gorgeous film.

      BUT I have an incredibly low tolerance for the sort of fawning interviews we see here, AND I think the choreographies would have been extremely well served with a little bit of background. The brief words of the dancers say absolutely nothing that is not already evident in the choreographies and frankly I found their mindless adulation a little bit creepy.

      To reframe the question: is this movie supposed to be about Pina, or about dance? Because I don't find her terribly interesting or realistic from the portrait this movie paints.

      And yes, "dance for love"– what other reason on earth could there possibly be to dance?

      It seems to me that many of the choreographies are intentionally surreal, bizarre, or absurd, and there is humor in them. And frankly I just couldn't bear to write a review with words like "profound" and "love" and "powerful". These days those are the words that ring shallow to me.

      I much prefer words like shout, disobey, reach, run, leap and embrace.


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