Dance Film Review: Teenagers Asked to Take on Pina Bausch

Dancing Dreams documents the collaborative journey between forty non-dancing teenagers and Pina Bausch as they set forth to re-stage Bausch’s 1978 work, Kontakthof. One of Bausch’s final projects before her tragic death in June of 2009, the sub-titled film combines rehearsal and performance footage with one-on-one interviews (of the dancers and the artistic team). With this combined format, directors Rainer Hoffmann and Anne Linsel create a holistic picture of the ten-month undertaking and reveal its profound result: deep self-discovery.

Bausch, who pioneered the dance-theater genre, chose to retain the original choreography and not modify Kontakthof for her untrained cast. Instead, she expected complete mastery and commitment. Of course, this led to some challenging and emotional moments. But it was these feelings of embarrassment, frustration, excitement, failure, success and fear that led to a true interpretation of the piece. While performing Kontakthof was the ultimate goal, an understanding of authenticity, command of truth-telling and reciprocal sharing of reality were the real lessons. Yes, forty teenagers learned a theatrical dance from a master choreographer, but really, they were introduced to a new side of themselves.

The film opens to find the cast already engaged in the early stages of rehearsal–choreography and scenework being supervised by rehearsal directors, Benedicte Billet and Josephine Ann Endicott. Though Bausch was involved at every point in the process, these two were charged with the initial teaching responsibilities. A perfect combination of support and intensity, both women displayed genuine care as they helped the teens conquer their insecurities while still requiring the excellence and detail that they would from any professional dancer. Right from the start, one can see the cast struggling to replicate Bausch’s difficult physical vocabulary and coming to the realization that this endeavor would be much harder than they could have ever imagined. In one scene, Billet and Endicott are rehearsing a simple walk with one of the cast. They have her repeat the walk over and over again, explaining that every part of the body has to tell the story (the eyes, the arms, the back). In their corrections, they stress that if not felt with the entire being, the walk means nothing. In another instance, a young girl was having difficulty with her given task: running around the perimeter of the stage while laughing, not because of something funny but from a place of fear and trepidation. After several attempts, her frustration began to take over. Endicott responded by holding her hand and running with her, which not only provided an example of how the sequence should look but was also the encouragement that the dancer needed in that moment.

In addition to the choreography, Bausch spent significant time in dialogue with the cast; another invaluable component of their learning process. In these ‘circle talks,’ she shared the underlying meaning of the ballet: Kontakthof (translated it means ‘contact zone’) examines how people treat each other, ranging from brutality to tenderness and everything in between. And, she told them that in order to truly express these emotions, they needed to find and harness the feelings within themselves. To start, she asked them to speak candidly about their notion and experience of love. Despite their young age, they all had something to say, contributing deeply honest and intimate thoughts. Here, they were discovering that movement, while important, is only one part of the artistic puzzle. To understand and embody Kontakthof, it had to be personal. Bausch and her work required more of them than memorization and regurgitation; this was an immersive exercise that was as much internal as it was external.

Ten months of working together brought astonishing changes. As one might expect, there had been some awkwardness in the sections of Kontakthof where the boys and girls had to dance together. At the beginning of rehearsals, the hesitation, nervousness and anxiety were so obvious anytime Bausch, Billet or Endicott needed them to approach each other. As a viewer, I really couldn’t help but feel bad for them. Fast forward to one of the performance shots, and you see the cast slow dancing, paired off in couples. Each of them was the image of true love–they were tender, affectionate and looked completely lost in the moment. No hint of their initial uncertainty was visible and the brief scene absolutely stunning.

Not only was there a dramatic improvement in dance and theatricality, the experience clearly affected them in other areas of their life. Some shared during their interviews that they were making friends with those outside their usual peer group. Instead of seeing socioeconomic status, race or size, all they saw were their Kontakthof cohorts. The cast also began to gel as a team; a collective whole where each and every player was important and held accountable. In yet another scene, Bausch is about to arrive at rehearsal and one of the guys has failed to show up on time. The other kids take it upon themselves (not the production staff) to call and track him down because they know that full attendance is necessary to a successful Kontakthof. Others told of their struggle with trust and disclosed their fear of being hurt or disappointed. In Dancing Dreams, you see those protective walls literally crumble, being replaced with camaraderie amongst the cast members and between them and the artistic team. In addition, the questions that they began to ask about life and love revealed a depth that far exceeded their age. Forty teenagers started out thinking that this was a fun opportunity to be in a dance performance and discovered that Pina Bausch’s work changes your life.

Next, Hoffmann and Linsel follow the cast to the theater, for tech week and the much-anticipated performances. Moving from the rehearsal space to the stage is challenging for any performer, so it was interesting to see how novices managed the extra pressure of lighting, sound, costumes, last minute cast changes and the dreaded end of all final rehearsals: the artistic director’s notes. The documentary then concludes with a few brief vignettes and the company bows from what I guessed was opening night. At first, I was disappointed by the ending because I (and I am sure others) longed to see the full-length Kontkathof danced by the youth company we had to come to know over the previous ninety minutes. Then, I realized that snippets of the finished product was really the only way this film could or should end. The performance of Kontakthof may have been the final destination but Dancing Dreams was not about the show, it was the journey of this cast, the artistic team and Bausch herself.

I think my only criticism of the film is that one part of the story is missing. While the months of work are very well chronicled, we never learn how the cast was assembled. Were they picked out of a much larger group, did they audition, were they the only ones who were able to make the lengthy commitment? Why these forty kids? Hoffmann and Linsel did such a magnificent job following the project’s every aspect, it would have made sense to start at the true beginning–the moment the dancers were chosen.

Dancing Dreams is a feel-good film packed with authenticity. It demonstrates that as trite as it may sound, one experience truly has the power to transform and change.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch will perform Danzon, a funny, bittersweet meditation on humanity’s trek through the 20th-Century life, at Cal Performances, Zelerbach Hall, Berkeley on December 2-3. See page 6 for more details.

For DVDs of Dancing Dreams, please visit: sodapictures.com; amazon.com

PUBLISHED December 1, 2011

POSTED IN In Dance

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