The Pina Bausch blog - the films

Posted: Tue Jun 26 2012

Not content with sitting through almost 30 hours of radical German dance theatre in the Pina Bausch World Cities season, our intrepid blogger Ricky Power Sayeed also saw six films by and about the pioneering dancemaker. Here's what he learned…

'Dancing Dreams', 'The Green Table', 'On Tour with Pina Bausch'

To complement its World Cities season of Pina Bausch performances, the Barbican is showing a series of films about the great German choreographer. Dance doesn't always work on screen, but Saturday's programme got off to a strong start with the delightful 'Tanzträume' ('Dancing Dreams'), which documents untrained teenage dancers rehearsing Bausch's classic work 'Kontakthof'.

This impenetrable dance piece, first performed in 1978 and previously re-staged with non-professional pension-age dancers, is all about our mating rituals. It features a couple getting undressed with each other for the first time, and a lot of that wooden dancing we've all seen and done at wedding parties. Caresses between lovers turn into bullying jabs and dancers are paraded so we can inspect their bodies. Swapping professional dancers for kids brought a new emotional acuteness to this production, so it was moving and funny to watch the young cast navigate Bausch's sexually-charged masterpiece. They're rehearsed by Jo Ann Endicott, who devised and danced the lead role, and as she teaches them to perform you can see the intellectual concentration on her face morph into pangs of jealousy and, more often, saintly maternal warmth.

The afternoon's other films were less engaging. 'The Green Table' (1967) is an expressionist ballet, created by Bausch's mentor Kurt Jooss, about old men waging war and everyone dying. As a history piece it's fascinating: Jooss was one of the most influential choreographers of his time and Pina dances the female lead. But the romanticised narrative is full of obvious ideas and emotions, and this dance won't be to everyone's taste. A second documentary, 'On Tour with Pina Bausch' (1983), shows us a glimpse of Bausch's mid-period works, and allows us to stare at her dancers in their backstage world of cigarettes, make-up and waiting around. It's beautifully shot, but I'd rather go to a live production.

Rating: 3/5

'The Complaint of the Empress', 'A Primer for Pina', 'Pina Bausch'

Saturday's second and final series of Pina Bausch-related films were old TV productions, and it showed. The colour and sound was poor, and the style dated. It was glorious.

Bausch's feature-length film 'The Complaint of the Empress' aired in 1990, but it harks back to her violent and even ugly work of the late '70s and early '80s. As with Bausch's live performances, we repeatedly return to a series of apparently unrelated vignettes: a woman in a Playboy-style bunny outfit traipses around a muddy field; another, deadly-still woman is caressed by her lover, but she's pathologically obsessed with keeping her ballgown and make-up intact. Throughout, a series of half-naked figures dance frantically in the rain. If this were a staged piece it would be among Bausch's greatest hits, but while filming these performances in real-life spaces adds to their vividness, watching them on screen created an unbridgeable gap that left me fascinated but cold.

Susan Sontag's TV essay, 'A Primer for Pina', sounds like an beginner's guide, but it's more of a critical analysis aimed at viewers with a very decent knowledge of the postwar performing arts. It's wittily edited, cutting suddenly from dynamic shots of Bausch's staged chaos, soundtracked by loud Beethoven choruses, to Sontag's blank face reading her essay, monotone. I loved it, but it's no wonder Channel 4 stopped screening this stuff.

In 'Pina Bausch', a longer and more conventional documentary, members of her company describe how they make their work. They're a little self-aware and say the same things over again, but then they've dedicated their lives to making art, not talking about it, and clearly neither they nor their legendary leader care greatly to be interviewed. Nonetheless, this doc provided the clearest and most basic introduction to Bausch's work that I've seen, and I'd question the wisdom of programming it at the end of this mini-season of films. That said, it's been a rare chance to see some brilliant pieces.

Rating: 4/5