Pina and Pite: Engrossing dance documentaries at VIFF 2022

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Dancing Pina | Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas | Vancouver International Film Festival 2022

The two dance documentaries at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival offer a chance to be inspired by an iconic choreographer of the past in Dancing Pina and equally to be inspired by a contemporary choreographer in Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas. Both of these documentaries spend a lot of time showing dancers in rehearsal and performance, with a lesser focus on talking head interviews – striking the right balance to showcase the movement and give viewers a sense of the choreographer’s craft.



Ten years after Pina Bausch’s death, two of her works are remounted and directed by former dancers from her company. Iphigenie auf Tauris is set on the Semperoper Ballet of Germany, while Le Sacre du Printemps is set on a group of dancers from across Africa who gather in Senegal at Ecole des Sables. Going back and forth between the rehearsal processes for each piece, there is a large contrast of place, culture, and dance backgrounds.


The beautiful outdoor rehearsal spaces in Senegal provide a perfect setting for mounting Le Sacre as the dancers practice the heavy, grounded movements. They end up performing the piece on the beach after learning that their formal presentations have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Back in Germany, things move ahead with a much more formal production at the opera house.  


Candid interviews with the dancers show how emotionally and physically committed they are to not only these pieces but the art of dance itself. Bausch’s legacy can be felt coming through them as they feel the weight of history and the importance of keeping her works alive. Her choreography provides so much scope for feeling and personal interpretation.


Under the direction of Malou Airaudo and Clémentine Deluy, the rehearsals in Germany are rigorous, intense and specific. In Senegal, Josephine Ann Endicott and Jorge Puerta Armenta emphasize the importance of bringing oneself to the movements and adding feeling. After one of the run throughs, Endicott says, “I feel it’s boring,” and asks the dancers to be themselves inside the movement. In both cases, the rehearsals are at once gruelling and rewarding, and the resulting performances are once in a lifetime.


Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas takes us behind the scenes at the National Ballet of Canada as the company prepares to remount Angels’ Atlas — the last piece they performed before the pandemic shutdown and the first to be presented in their reopening performance. The first rehearsal is three days before opening night and Pite greets the dancers with enthusiasm and warmth. Everyone is grateful to be back together in the studio preparing for a live show. With only a few days to prepare, everyone seems hyper-focused on making sure they do not miss any detail of Pite’s choreography, which is full of subtlety and precision.


As Pite describes the emotional quality of her movements, the dancers work on embodying the grief and loss she aims to evoke. Pite’s explanation of her fascination with dance is fascinating in itself as she says that she is fluent in body language, knowing what the head’s position in relation to the shoulders means and how much a small hand movement can convey. She says she strives to reconcile the personal and universal in her works and loves working in a medium that is always in a state of disappearing.


While live dance is ephemeral, the entire piece is shown in the second half of the film. Although showing the entirety of the work is unconventional for a documentary, showing clips of the piece would undermine its emotional depth as the flock of dancers pulses and ripples in beautiful urgency. The large cast fills the stage and, after seeming broken, they find the strength to carry the weight of their grief.


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