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Beginning life as an installment in a European television series on modern dance, One Day Pina Asked… (1983) is the best cinematic reflection on the late, great modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch. Following the then-rising star of Pina Bausch and her Wuppertal, West Germany-based dance company for five weeks during a tour of Europe, director Chantal Akerman subtly abandons all pretense of producing a comprehensive or exacting documentary. Dreamy, searching, and almost paradoxically decisive, One Day Pina Asked… evokes the spirit of a diary — a web of brief, tinged, focused moments of interviews, performances, rehearsals, and backstage preparation.
For Akerman, the film seems to have been in part an effort to suss out the extraordinary power and emotion she experienced in Bausch’s work. Time and again through this compact little film, just 57 minutes in length, Akerman speaks of the difficulty she felt in trying in evoke and share the performance’s effect on her. Opening with a strikingly framed scene — from a dark and unadorned room, the camera spies a spinning, ringing dance, but only through an open doorway — Akerman speaks of how deeply moved she was by the “lengthy performances that mingle together in your head,” then adding “I have the feeling that the images we brought back do not convey this very much and often betray it.” Indeed, a narrator (not Akerman this time) speaks of the film not as a documentary so much as “a journey through [Pina’s] world, through her unwavering quest for love.”
Year later, German director Wim Wenders would also chart a trip through Pina’s world. Interestingly, both films, though for different reasons, explore Bausch’s body of life and work largely in the absence of the Bausch herself. For Wenders’ Pina, it was unavoidable. Bausch passed as the team was prepared to begin production. Adjusting to an suddenly eulogistic project of her life and memory, Wenders’ film builds up charged, embodied portrait of Bausch’s life, capturing long, full passages from her body of work in elegant cinematography (including a moving and bold use of 3D); remembering her life through intimate interviews with the dancers that knew her so well and whose autobiographical contributions she so encouraged, to the effect that they were braided it into her and their life’s work.
Pina is a wonderful documentary, offering an opportunity to view once more and in greater detail many of the performances documented in One Day Pina Asked… It also offers the opportunity for an interesting comparison of approaches and opinions in filmmaking. Almost universally applauded, Pina has also been ever so slightly slighted by some critics as a sort of wondrous silkscreen of a great artist. In the words of the New Yorker’s Richard Brody it is an “excellent film insofar as Bausch is an excellent artist.” “Where is Wenders in all this?” they might ask. “Where is creation of something new, some revealing expression, something alchemical?” It is a distinction that is now part of a growing debate tossing about in the documentary world over the borders between truth, reality, and documentation.
What lifts Akerman’s film, and so much of her work, is the degree to which she is able to so deftly explore time and place, pulling open the emotional, existential world lying amid the plain, spare, and ordinary acts and spaces of everyday life. Bausch similarly drew from the life’s movements and memory — a fact not lost on Brody who extolls Akerman as “one of the greatest choreographic filmmakers,” masterful in her sensitive attention to movement, timing, and staging. A supreme example in One Day Pina Asked…is that opening scene in the dark room, a moment of artist connecting with that of another. Dancing on the edge between exposure and containment, between belonging and being on the outside looking in, the moment ties elements from both Bausch’s and Akerman’s work.
Others scenes come to mind as well, especially the quiet moments backstage, dancers smoking, applying makeup, languidly playing the piano. Throughout, Akerman’s camera is loose and snappy, quickly cutting and wading over tightly framed fragments: “a few snippets, some feelings, some general impressions” placed in no particular order Akerman explains.
And yet there is, of course, an order. During one interview a performer shares how Bausch motivated him to draw from his visit to the United States, where he learned American Sign Language and memorably heard Gershwin’s ”The Man I Love.” Unexpectedly, an old record of the tune is played, and the man carefully, self-consciously signs and mouths the lyrics. It has all the earnestness and unguarded marvel of someone trying something out for the first few times. Later on he performs the work on stage, the act an acclaimed part of the company’s repertoire. Through Akerman’s ordering, it is also shown to be much more than that: an indelible sample of Bausch’s project of love.