He was a star in Japan. She was renowned in Germany. Could they film together? 1,531 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The flight from Tokyo to Dusseldorf was seriously late. The airport lay in near silent darkness. The Japanese film actor-director-dancer swooped down the ramp, burst from the gate, approached the lone 24-hour car rental counter and demanded a Mercedes. “Black as a june bug on a moonless summer night. With a motor built for elephants,” he told the sleepy blonde rental clerk from a memorized script. The only word she’d understood, aside from “Mercedes,” was “black.” He slammed the desk with the palm of his hand. He wasn’t quite as menacing as his on-screen persona. He just didn’t like to waste time.
He smoked abstractedly while the car rental agent tapped at her computer. His sunglasses gleamed like the sedan he would soon drive down a deserted stretch of Autobahn. Lost in thought, the movie helmer punched all the wrong buttons on the Blaupunkt radio and heard Kraftwerk interspersed crazily with John Coltrane and the Charlie Haden Quartet as the solemn automobile rolled past martial rows of tall pines over impeccable asphalt.
He had no idea what the German town of Wuppertal looked like, didn’t know such a thing as a Schwebebahn existed, and didn’t care. He’d flown over half the world to meet a lady.
In Japan, he was a living treasure. In Germany, Pina Bausch was more of a hidden pleasure. Her admirers were fewer but no less rabid. He was among the most fervent. Enraptured by her dance moves, he wanted to capture them in his film.
He was driving blind. His shades, custom-made at a samurai optician smithy in the Ginza, were nearly opaque. He was used to steering on the right side of the car on the wrong side of the road. He was used to having a driver. A small army of nondescript directorial assistants dressed as underworld underlings bore him wherever he needed to go. He got his start in showbiz slinging spaz-jokes, then graduated to cop operas and gangster flicks. He knew he had soiled himself with professional comedy. He bore the mark like a yakuza tattoo, and yearned for art.
Now he felt ready to tackle the dance, and wanted Pina to teach him how. He wanted the German modern dance goddess to star with him in his musical version of Sunset Boulevard, mixed with a rice-fed Porgy And Bess, pastiched with gangland elements of West Side Story, and a Bollywood wiggle.
The project’s working title was Samurai Salomé.
We could shoot here, he thought. Expensive, but what the hell. In his mind, he saw his down-jacketed crew scurry after light, hunting down the best angles from which to capture the sublime and ephemeral movement. “We will re-create the Berlin-Tokyo axis, but this time for high class entertainment,” he’d told the investors.
A swinging upside-down monorail train ghosted by, its robotic headlights beamed towards an imaginary future.
No problem parking in Wuppertal. The sleepy former factory town, smoothed over rolling hills along the Wupper, lay swathed in a kimono of night. The stars were drops of molten iron splashed across universal silk. The director emerged from the car, stretched and sucked in cold air scented by industrial smelters, and found the front door.
He pushed the Bausch Haus’s doorbell button. A gong sounded inside. Pina opened up with a gesture that symbolized non-dance women called to the front doors to their dwellings. She’d rehearsed the steps and expressions before a mirror, mercilessly. She’d been expecting the Japanese gallant. She had no idea what he wanted, however.
“Come in,” Pina said, stepping aside and breaking into German. She took him in with her eyes, caught his barely discernible body odor, sensed the coarse texture of his hair. But his skin, she thought, was smooth and cold as a lizard’s. “You’ve come a long way,” she said. For some reason, she thought her guest spoke German. She was wrong. She switched to English, which neither of them really understood. “Have you eaten? Would you like a beer?”
The director was beat after the plane ride and the Autobahn, but he understood the word for beer. He nodded while grunting “Yes.”
He entered her cavernous living room and saw Pina lounging on an under-designed jade-colored settee. He fixed her with his pitbull stare in the room’s baleful light and looked closely: she was Nefertiti with a big schnoz and a case of athletic anorexia. Despite appearances, she was anything but willowy. Her core was unrecycled stainless steel. Trip hammers counted cadence in her soul. She was sharp, even cutting, with dancers who failed to learn her daredevil moves in a heartbeat or to execute them without qualm or question. As a choreographer, she was impossible in so many ways. Too avant garde, too primitive sophisticated, too horribly pure.
A motorscooter accident and close encounter with the road had frozen half the film director’s face into a mask of menace. The right side was partially paralyzed. Pina, reading the underlying emotion, touched it.
“Whatever you’ve come to Wuppertal for,” she whispered, “I’ll collaborate. But you must relay your direction through me.”
He grunted again, this time nodding. He crossed the room and collapsed in a leather club chair. He knew it was the choreographer’s personal throne, but he wanted to establish dominance. She understood.
She went into the kitchen for a cold brew and came back with a foaming stein. He downed the German suds, gasped from umami, and burped under his breath.
He had brought a gift for the dictatorial figurante: a samurai sword in a lacquered sheath black as a beetle’s carapace that had sat waiting for her in the hulking Merc’s shotgun seat. A scene played in his head: “Either you take this starring role of a lifetime, Pina, or I behead you, like in those gruesome WW2 GI training movies.” He chuckled at the thought of her tight chignon-ed head rolling across a parquet floor polished by dancing feet.
Pina would murder him in the musical — whether by evisceration or emasculation, he hadn’t decided yet.
Pina, perched on her couch, betrayed no emotion. Though her secret wet dream was a horizontal pas-de-deux with the stone-faced Japanese, she was going to play hard to get. She’d spent two years in New York. She’d seen Broadway musicals and heard the tapping feet of Broadway hoofers and hams. Pfui, she thought in German. Phooey, in English. But her heart thumped harder inside her birdcage chest. Those skeletal bars were high-carbon surgical steel.
Pina copped guilty thrills from watching sci-fi flicks. They were popular, in Germany. (In Japan, they were cheesy monster-puppets roaring fire and devastating bonsai jungles.) The Star Wars crowd never darkened the doors of the Wuppertaler Tanztheater where her company danced. But she saw herself coiffed as Princess Leia, whipping a laser katana through the air, reducing her enemies to gory rainbow sprays.
The director’s tough-as-nails aura wasn’t merely an act. His lumpy build was a body that accepted whatever the costume department threw its way. He was thinking of Samurai Salomé’s final duel scene: the man in black, the woman in white, and their slow-motion approach, the steps, the swirls and then it’s all over. The man stumbles, falls into an irrigation canal. A futuristic train swoops in over the ripples and takes the viewer away.
The scene made him cry a little.
Gesticulating wildly, he laid out the underlying concepts for Samurai Salomé. Strains of Richard Strauss floated towards his left ear, the one that no longer heard too well. He mentally transposed the score for jazz bamboo flute. He sprang from the chair and grabbed back the sword.
“I show you,” he said.
He unsheathed his gift to Pina. The blade hissed inches from her gaunt mask. He shouted like a samurai. Then he froze, and began to sing. He used the black lacquered scabbard as a cane, and tap-danced to the opening aria of the musical he had in mind. Instead of lyrics and dialogue, he imagined savage vocalizations, sexual noises, the sound of ripped flesh, cries of agony and panic. Dancin’. The whole time. Dancin’.
“For you,” he said. “Good sword.”
“My father promised me a sword,” she replied. It was impossible to tell whether the blade reached for her, or the other way around. Pina’s hands seemed cast from wax, but the sinews beneath the pale skin were those of a well-trained warrior. She stepped back, feinted dangerously close to the director’s Roman emperor/yakuza hairdo. She sheathed the blade with a whipping flourish, cutting her thumb as it slid in.
Blood flowed. Pina pretended to be uninjured. The splatter patterns on the foyer’s tile floor were footprint traces for a possible group dance adaptation of a Hermann Nitsch ritual.
A versus B. Positive is incompatible with negative.
O is accepted by the whole troupe.
A virus breaks through a crimson scrim, dressed in green.
The dancer and the director never met again. He’s still working; Pina died in 2009 in Wuppertal at the age of 68 of a form of cancer attributable to smoking, five days after the diagnosis and two days before shooting was scheduled to begin for a long planned Wim Wenders documentary.