Pina Bausch had an outrageous idea, retrospectively a no-brainer: that the preposterousness of human existence, so thoroughly explored by the other arts, could also inspire modern dance.
Putting that idea into practice would yield a marvelous series of adjustments, crumplings, readjustments, tenacious embraces, accelerating failures and spectacular successes of physical communication. And Bausch's work became at once more mesmerizing and more prone to audience walkouts. Who knew physical honesty could yield such artiness?
Yerba Buena's rich retrospective, To the Limit: Pina Bausch on Film, reintroduces the famed German choreographer, who died within days of a cancer diagnosis at age 68 last year, and reiterates the pleasure and privilege of watching her work. What a figure she cut, with that long forlorn face and ropy frame, like a Giacometti sculpture come to life. Her performances, accordingly, could seem sometimes like perfectly embodied anguish.
"Bausch has left a deep print in America," Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker in 2002. "In New York's 'downtown' dance scene of the late eighties, dancing was largely replaced by a violent sort of drama, in which, very often, someone was dying and the audience was to blame. If I had to name the reasons for that, the first would be AIDS and the second would be the 1984 American debut of Bausch's company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal."
How's that for a legacy? Well, incomplete. Yes, Basuch liked to work in sketch-like scenarios, and in a sexually charged theater of cruelty, often delineating the uneasy boundaries between heavy petting and patting down, between slapstick comedy and sadism. But as she aged, she lightened up. Some of what her performances describe is joy.
It may seem futile to try containing these impulses in two-dimensional moving pictures, but the beauty of Bausch's work is that being uncontainable keeps it cinematic. There is a reason Fellini cast her in And the Ship Sails On as a blind princess, a soul so sensitive that she could detect colors in people's voices.
Yerba Buena's cycle includes several video recordings of Bausch's pieces, like the seminal Café Müller, a stylishly shellshocked remembrance of the cafe her parents ran in postwar Germany. But the popular highlight probably will be the American premiere of Dancing Dreams, a 2010 Berlin Film Festival sensation that documents a group of teenagers rehearsing and performing Bausch's Kontakthof. It is the sort of choreography that arranges performers in anxiously stratified gender groups, as if on opposite sides of a high-school dance hall, and compels instructors to ask of them, "Why don't you dare?" It's funny, racy and replete with too much information. You can see its appeal for adolescents.
"You're best when you're yourselves," Bausch tells the class. It's clear at once how right she is -- and how righteous is the project of channeling spazzy Teutonic teendom into some kind of grace.
To the Limit: Pina Bausch on Film plays May 6, 13, 23, and 27-30, 2010 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit ybca.org.