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Dancing Pina

Director: Florian Heinzen-Ziob (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Pina Bausch was a choreographer, who died in 2009. But her work lives on. Dancing Pina documents two recent pieces, each of which is based on an earlier version choreographed by Bausch, and led by people who worked with and under her. Gluck’s Iphigenie From Tauris is being put on by the Semper Opera in Dresden, Meanwhile, the École des Sables in Senegal is rehearsing a new piece set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The dancers in Senegal are from a mixture of African countries, and instructions are given in English and French. They all rehearse together in the mornings, and then in the afternoons the male dancers and female dancers are separated. The women are told that this is because the men are much slower at learning. You do wonder whether the men are told exactly the same thing.

Cards on the table. I may not be the most reliable reviewer of this film. Of all the art forms, dance is the one that I’ve found the hardest to appreciate. It is not because dance by it’s nature is a more abstract discipline than, say, theatre or even painting. I can appreciate a group of bodies moving in perfect harmony in the same way that I can appreciate synchronized swimming. It’s not something that I would watch for hours on end, but I think I understand where the art lies.

What I find difficult to appreciate are the moments where dance aspires to transcend the abstract. So, in the African piece, there is an orange piece of cloth which is regularly handed over from dancer to dancer. Meanwhile in Dresden, the dancers are performing on a stage containing a great hole in the middle. One of the dancers explains how it’s hard to concentrate because of it. I genuinely don’t understand what these things are doing here and why it matters.

To be clear, this is not me saying that dance is bad, but that every so often something happens and I’m not really sure how to react. There is obviously more going on here than I understand. But to explain to a simpleton like me what I am missing would be to rob dance of whatever it is that makes it what it is. Consequently, I sit back and appreciate the bits that I get, and presume that the rest of it is of value to a different audience.

Bear all this in mind when I say that, having watched the film, I’m not much wiser about what it is that makes Pina Rausch special. She does seem to attract a certain sort of production. The lead dancer of the Dresden Opera is unusually tall, and she tells us that other companies are much more particular of the size of the people they work with (having said this, all the dancers are pretty athletic, which does make sense). Similarly an all-African production offers something untypical.

Before seeing the film, I’d presumed that the companies would be offering modern dance. Maybe the École des Sables is, but not in my limited understanding of the word. The modern dance routines which exist in my head are played to pulsating electronic beats. Stravinsky may have been more adventurous then most of his contemporaries, but this is still classical music, and all that that entails. Then again, maybe all that it entails is the prejudices of people like me.

Most of the film consists of the endless rehearsals – in Dresden in a cold studio, in Senegal in an open air stage on the edge of the sea. This is doubtless fascinating to the aficionado, but to my limited brain, we see a lot of people repeating the same moves again and again and again. One of the reasons I never became a successful dancer or musician – apart from the obvious complete lack of talent – is that this sort of repetition becomes quite tiresome very quickly.

This is how I found myself watching the film feeling both impressed and fatigued in roughly equal measure. It was obvious that something very skilful was going on in front of my eyes, and I was being offered intimate access to some of the remarkable individuals coming together to create it. And yet much of it left me slightly cold and unable to be moved to an appropriate extent.

I could see that there were significant differences between an East German state dance company, who were all used to dancing to the rules and the group of Africans, many of whom had had no formal lessons, and had learned to dance on the street. If I were perceptive enough, I’d see how Bausch was either able to appeal equally to people with different backgrounds, or was better suited to one group than the other (could someone who understands delete as appropriate?).

There was drama towards the end of the film which even a philistine like me could understand. After months of rigorous practise, the African dancers are called into an emergency meeting in the canteen. Unfortunately, their opening performance in Dakar has been cancelled because of Covid. Not just that, the planned tour of Europe has also had to be cancelled. It was unclear whether they would ever perform. Meanwhile, the Semper Opera is limbering up for its successful opening night.

I found myself frustrated by Dancing Pina, and the frustration was less at the pacing of the film than at my inability to keep up. It could be that if I understood everything, if I had a full grounding in dance, I would have loved it. Equally I could have followed it all and been bitterly disappointed at its vacuousness. I just didn’t feel able to make this call. Go and see this one and make your own call. I’m genuinely little help here.

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