One Day Pina Asked . . . (1983), Chantal Akerman’s TV documentary about German choreographer Pina Bausch, was made during a pivotal chapter in Akerman’s career, during which the Belgian filmmaker combined her minimalist style (most evident in her 1975 epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) with elements of classic movie musicals. The previous year Akerman had released Toute une Nuit, a series of narrative fragments on the themes of romantic longing and fulfillment; there’s no singing, but the stylized sets and the characters’ dancelike movements suggest a sort of visual music. After that Akerman launched her first full-blown musical, The Golden Eighties (released in the U.S. as Window Shopping); typically obsessed by her own creative process, she also used footage from the extended rehearsals to create the experimental documentary Les Années 80 (1983), which many prefer to The Golden Eighties.
Akerman’s development during this period feels less like a departure than an elaboration on certain qualities that were always essential to her films—specifically her tendency to root their dramatic content in the physicality of her performers. Yet by focusing explicitly on choreography, the director achieved new levels of sensuality and emotional directness. The dance footage in Pina Asked is astonishing, not only because of Bausch’s choreography (a groundbreaking fusion of classical ballet, modern dance, and performance art) but because of the feeling and intelligence Akerman brings to it. Using lengthy takes and exacting compositions (two of her stylistic signatures), she encourages us to reflect on how the dancers’ bodies give form to Bausch’s ideas.
As the film opens, a voice-over narrator explains that Bausch’s “originality and force very probably lie in her blend of dance and theater, her fastidious staging, and the way she utilizes her performers. . . . [Her pieces] talk to us about love, tenderness, and how they strip bare ‘dressed-up’ behavior, which often veers towards ambiguity, misunderstandings, hysteria, and violence.” These words might describe Akerman’s work as well. Indeed some of the most extraordinary sequences in Pina Asked feel like personal statements from both the director and Bausch. Near the end of the film several snappily dressed men surround a woman, their affectionate attention gradually progressing into molestation. Without missing a beat, one man continues the gestures of another, so that the woman seems to be engulfed by an octopus. The choreography suggests a poetic illustration of how modern-day social behavior is still governed by age-old chauvinistic attitudes. At the same time, there’s a seductive quality to the fluid movement, suggesting that women can be complicit in their own oppression. This sequence also documents Akerman’s growth as an artist, the dynamic composition signaling a deeper, more purposeful fascination with bodies in motion.