In one of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, “In The Electric Tram,” the narrator describes the feeling of well-being that comes with sitting in a moving vehicle on a rainy afternoon: the joy of lighting a cigarette, the satisfaction of composing a tune in his head, the urge to strike up a conversation with the reticent conductor. His gaze takes in the other passengers: “the drooping mustaches, the face of a weary, elderly woman, a pair of youthfully mischievous eyes belonging to a girl,” before happily settling on his footwear. “I must say,” he confesses to his reader, “I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.”
The German industrial city of Wuppertal still has a functioning electric tram, which hangs from long beams like an aerial camera and which travels through Wim Wender’s new 3-D dance movie, Pina, an homage to the German choreographer Pina Bausch. It is a running joke, appearing during the movie’s opening titles as the audience grapples with their 3-D glasses and cropping up in different scenes throughout the film—suspended above two dancers performing a duet on a roundabout, or situated below a dancer who, sitting on the tram’s old fretwork, shoves his legs around as they pop up like disobedient wooden beams. Later, in the tram’s car, a male dancer wearing cardboard cut-out Spock ears takes a seat in the back row and stares straight ahead, apparently oblivious to his appendages—and to the female dancer boarding the vehicle, whose dark hair is entirely hiding her face. She heaves along with her a white pillow as if it were a live thing, making squelching sound effects, before reassuming her anonymity and sitting down. This is Bausch’s world—a little like ours, but stranger: perhaps more like Walser’s Berlin of 1905, a city of would-be actors and artists, voyeurs and dilettantes, and elderly women with lipstick on their teeth. Pina reminds us of the ways we are all performing to one another and pretending to ignore others’ performances, and it’s one of the most blissful things I’ve ever seen on a rainy afternoon.
Pina Bausch, who died two days before filming for Pina began, invented her own kind of dance, called “Tanztheatre” (Dance Theater), which condenses everyday patterns of behavior into single images or movements, like swiftly-drawn caricatures: a woman sits in a foam bath, washing her hair, before pulling a dinner plate from the tub, which is apparently doubling as a kitchen sink; a man measures his suit jacket with his thumb span, his hands nimbly traveling around his torso with the adroit nonchalance of a good barman. Her dances combine glamour (the men are dressed in evening suits and throw around the women as if they are as light as their silk dresses) with the kind of insights that make individuals in the audience sigh. At one moment in the film, a female dancer wearing a long black ballgown covered in pink hearts positions herself five feet in front of a male partner who stands before her in blank anticipation, before she falls in a rigid diagonal to his feet to be caught by him at the last possible moment—a feat she repeats over and over again. (Wim Wenders has said that he learned more about the relationships between men and women watching the first ten minutes of one of Bausch’s performances than he had in any love affair.)
People are possessive of Pina; those who had seen live performances of her work before the film came out leaped to claim her as their own when it did. I hadn’t realized that I, too, felt a possessiveness toward Bausch until I saw the opening sequence of Wenders’s movie, in which a line of dancers parade before the camera like cheerful angels—and found that I knew these people already, their crooked teeth and sinewy arms, from performances years before in London (unlike the head of a normal ballet company or theater group, Bausch worked with the exact same performers for decades). Bausch is especially loved by nondancers—perhaps because her moves seem, unlike a ballet dancer’s, almost achievable (she even once cast a nonprofessional company of teenagers, and another time dancers over sixty-five). The first time I saw Café Müller in London as a teenager, my dancing feet were even harder to locate than usual. I was recovering from spinal surgery and was encased in a brace that covered my torso, from under my arms to the top of my left knee, to stop me from bending at the middle; moving from standing to lying down involved a surrender not unlike that of the dancer in the ballgown. Rather than making me retreat into my plastic shell, however, the performance onstage was oddly heartening. Expression for these people wasn’t about flexibility, or sex, or energy, but about recognition: an understanding of how we act and act out, relying on others to prop us up, carry us along.
That most of her dances actually involve a kind of ineptitude probably helped. The most conspicuous dancer in Café Müller is a bit-part: a figure in an orange wig who teeters around in pink heels, doing a tiny, self-conscious routine for the men. Meanwhile, two other dancers dressed in nighties fumble across the stage barefoot behind her, their eyes shut and arms outstretched, stumbling into walls and chairs, which male dancers move out of their way in a protective panic. In the black-and-white footage of this piece in Wenders’s film, Bausch, who originally performed the part of the sleepwalker soloist, looks terribly thin and pale as she shuffles about, circling her arms around her head and shoulders as if they are possessed. In a voice-over, she explains that, after trying the piece just once, she suddenly lost the knack. She searched in vain for a way to get back the same feeling she had experienced the first time—something, she knew, was missing—before realizing that, during her second attempt, she had been looking down, rather than straight ahead, under her closed eyelids. It’s a strangely inspiring thought—that the real dancers are the ones who head straight into the darkness, apparently determined to give themselves a black eye.
Losing myself in Pina clips late one night, I came across Dancing Dreams, a documentary filmed in 2008 about teenagers learning to dance Kontakthof, a piece in which rows of female and then male dancers present themselves to the audience as if auditioning for a part, before courting each other, pretending not to mean it. (None of the teenagers involved had been in love; one boy in the film tells his teachers that the closest experience he had to courtship was working up the courage to ask for a girl’s number on the tram; she got out at the next stop. Bausch shrugs in response, unsurprised, casually holding her cigarette like a pen.) In one of the documentary’s best scenes—which takes place, like all the best scenes in dance movies, shortly before opening night—a teenage girl tries to learn the dance. She must run in a circle by herself, laughing hysterically. “No, no!” her teacher, a dancer from Bausch’s company, exclaims. “Is that how you really laugh?” They do it together, holding hands, working themselves into a frenzy—a sight that is, for anyone who finds it hard to let themselves go, agonizing to watch. “There,” says the teacher. “Better?” The girl shakes her head, breathless, still unhappy.
The experience of watching Pina is quite different from seeing a Bausch performance onstage, or even in a normal documentary. During Le Sacre du Printemps, a piece set to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and set on a stage covered with red dirt, the pain of letting go feels irrelevant. The camera is so close that we can hear the dancers pant, and the 3-D technology renders their limbs huge and glowing. We see the sweat running down the women’s cleavages, the dust sticking to their cheeks.
But then the scene changes to two dancers waltzing on Wuppertal tarmac, and the tram reappears in the background, its little windows flashing by like an LED. By filming Bausch’s dancers in different sites across the city—an industrial strip, the park outside a museum—Wenders locates his dancers firmly in reality, which is both less gorgeous than the dancers are and equally mystifying. Cars drive past at high speed, waving their football flags. People hurry by, ignoring the silk-clad dancers while their dogs bark at them. If you’re not looking hard enough, the camera reminds us, you could easily miss it; dancers could be anywhere, even if just sitting in a back seat, looking straight ahead. Leaving the cinema (it was my the third time), I attempted a move on the sidewalk, failed. But as women clipped their high-heels on the subway steps, and an elderly woman fumbled with her shopping, and a seated man in the subway car looked down at his feet, it didn’t seem to matter.
Emily Stokes is an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine.