Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images
The late German choreographer Pina Bausch, at a Berlin media appearance in 2007.
The late German choreographer Pina Bausch, at a Berlin media appearance in 2007. Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images
A camera is like a big index finger directing your attention to what you are supposed to see. A movie is an edit of what is there to be seen, never a reenactment. This is why, as a general rule, film destroys dance.
Dance — I don't mean dancing; I mean dance as performance — is a contact sport, an encounter of audience and performers. You can't film it, because all you can film is something that that can be seen. When it comes to dance, it's not what you see, but the seeing itself — the choices we make about what to pay attention to, or the way those choices are choreographed for us by the work itself — that is where the action is.
Wim Wenders' Academy-award nominated film on the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, Pina: Dance Dance Otherwise We are Lost, contains a segment of Lutz Förster's marvelous solo from Bausch's Für die Kinder von Gestern, Heute und Morgen (For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow). I once saw this segment performed live (in the setting of Jerome Bel's larger work Lutz Förster.) It is a fascinating exercise in understatement and gentle, almost invisible absorption in rhythms.
You watch the performer, and as you watch you shift your gaze from his hands to his hips to his breast to his leg to his enormous and beautiful nose to his not-quite-describable facial expression. All this subtle gorgeousness was blocked from view by the large, almost clunky movements of Wenders' camera. The subject matter switched; it was the film's own choreography that was put on display, not that of Pina Bausch.
I don't offer this as a criticism of Wenders, particularly. Wenders succeeds in offering tribute to Pina, giving us a glimpse of what she achieved. And he displays his own passion for the art of this great choreographer. But it does explain the film's flatness, despite the breathtaking performances by the dancers, the unusual and picturesque settings and the use of 3D. Wenders tried to film something that can't be filmed. Like looking at your face in the mirror and trying to see the eyes you see seeing. There are some things you can't see. There are some things that can't be shown.
Dance for film — the work of Bob Fosse, for example, or Fred Astaire, or the dance we see in music videos today by Beyonce, or in Whitney Houston's early videos — is another story altogether. For these are works where the camera is itself choreographed by the dance itself. Dance on film, in contrast with dance for film, is always a disappointment, like circus on film.
You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and Twitter.