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Flash Review 1, 5-24: "Talk to Her"
Bausch Meets Almodovar in New Film

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

MADRID -- It is no secret that Pina Bausch's choreography and theater have made a profound impression within the dance world. Influences from her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, in other choreographers' work are pervasive, whether overt or nuanced. Bausch's theater has been the subject of a number of photographic projects, writings, and some film projects. A new film by Pedro Almodovar, "Talk to Her," out now in Europe and scheduled to be released in the U.S. in November by Sony Pictures Classical, substantiates the lasting effect she's had on artists working in other genres. The difference is that Almodovar himself has an enormous following and that Bausch's work is now being seen, most likely, by vastly larger audiences than have seen it previously, perhaps catalyzing a subtle shift in pop culture.

Although only brief segments of "Cafe Muller" (1978), and "Masurca Fogo" (1998) are shown to open and close the film, Bausch's presence can be felt throughout, like a vibration. She appears at the beginning of the film with Malou Airaudo, an original member of Tanztheater Wuppertal. If Airaudo -- a fiercely dramatic, corporal presence -- represents the body of the dancer, then Bausch surely represents the spirit, with her Manneristically long-boned feet, willowy arms, and non-confrontational gaze. Veering through a maze of cafe tables in the excerpt from "Cafe Muller," the two women crash belly-first into a felt-covered wall, Airaudo assailing it, Bausch melting into it. Both collapse to the floor, in Pieta-like contractions.

The film's two main characters, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), are seated in the audience next to one another at a performance of "Cafe Muller" the first encounter in a series which entwines their fates in unimaginable ways. It is the writer Marco's emotional reaction, first here to Bausch's work, which recurs throughout the film, representative of his inability to share a charged emotional experience with a loved one. This seam in Marco's otherwise stoic and impassive bearing is a familiar yet continually shocking emotional vulnerability. Benigno's dark secret is masked by a surreal, short silent film which foreshadows his character's actions.

The plot revolves around two women in comas, one a promising young dancer in the local ballet academy (Alicia, played by Leonor Watling), the other a successful bullfighter whose personal life was nearly as volatile as her work in the ring (Lydia, played by Rosario Flores). It is Benigno's life work as a nurse and personal groomer to care for Alicia, massaging the atrophy out of her muscles and tending to the most rudimentary hygiene; Marco sits vigil in girlfriend Lydia's room, yards away from her both spatially and emotionally.

Benigno describes the performance of "Cafe Muller" and his encounter with Marco to Alicia even though she can't react; he has gotten Bausch to autograph her photo (incidentally, the same photo which appeared in Almodovar's earlier film, "All About My Mother), which he has framed and hung on her hospital wall like an image of a patron saint.

The singer Caetano Veloso makes a cameo appearance singing the sweet "Cucurrucucu Paloma," evoking Bausch's voracious taste for music from all parts of the world (she included Veloso's music in last year's "Agua," which opens in Paris June 18). By the remarkable closing scene, which takes us full circle to a hypnotic line of couples dancing in a performance of "Masurca Fogo," it's evident how organic a match Bausch's style is with Almodovar's in "Talk to Her," with the music from the performance mixing seamlessly with the soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias. Almodovar and Bausch both portray women as simultaneously in control and yet completely vulnerable and at the mercy of outside forces.

It is a rare film that so successfully integrates dance into the story. The Bausch scenes are presented de facto -- performances as we experience them, the same way a scene in a famous restaurant might be filmed, or a sightseeing tour of the Eiffel Tower. Treating these performances as fixed cultural landmarks, Almodovar showed his respect by leaving the dance alone rather than molding it to fit the narrative, as so often happens with dance segments in film. And he mostly left the dancing to dancers and the acting to actors.

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