I went into Wim Wender’s 3D documentary on legendary dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch knowing nothing about her or her Tanztheater Wuppertal ensemble and having very little familiarity with modern dance. I came away totally captivated and eager to know more. Wenders was similarly captivated by a 1985 performance of the ensemble’s “Café Müller.” He and Bausch became friends and had long planned a film collaboration, but Bausch died unexpectedly in 2009 just a few days before the film was to begin shooting. Rather than scrap the project, it was reworked and became as much a tribute to Bausch as a document of the exhilarating dances she created. The result is a joyous, thrilling, funny, dramatic, sexy and altogether transporting celebration of a woman, of a dance troupe and of the very language of movement.
Built around segments from four different pieces (Le Sacre Du Printempts, Kontakthof, Café Müller and Vollmond) filmed both on stages and out in the open and around a city, Pina uses 3D in a way that draws you in to the performances. Better in a way than a front row seat at a live production, you move in and around the dancers while also being able to regard them from afar. It’s a perfect melding of technology and art. It’s the first 3D film I’ve seen where it felt like the technology was more than just a distraction. I’ve been critical about most 3D presentations (I was even unmoved by the use of it in Cave of Forgotten Dreams though the intentions of it were sound), but this is a rare case where I’d urge you to see a movie in 3D if you can.
Technology aside, the dances themselves are remarkable. Le Sacre Du Printemps, the clash between male and female on a stage of peat set to Stravinsky is especially dramatic and gripping. What I didn’t expect though was the whimsy of several of the pieces or the erotic charge of others. Visually perhaps the most striking, the monochromatic Vollmond involves black stage and backdrop, a shallow moat, a simple giant boulder and a storm of rain. As it is splashed up by the dancers, or rains down upon them, the backlit water cascades like silvery gems against the black stage. Switching back and forth from one dance to another, Bausch’s vision emerges abstractly in fragments like an impressionist painting that uses movement as well as light and color. It’s a survey of a career, but also a living, breathing interpretation on its own.
In between segments of dance, Wenders allows the dancers to remember Pina in their own words. These aren’t talking head interviews, they’re simply thoughts and ideas and remembrances recorded and played back over moving images of the speaker. The words and the facial expressions almost tell two different stories at the same time. It’s an interesting technique. What emerges in between the explosions of movement then is a portrait of a woman sketched by those who knew her best. Beyond her talent and vision which we’re able to see with our own eyes, she comes across as having a particular knack for nurturing creativity and creating an environment where her dancers’ own talents could flower fully and in surprising ways.
There’s a sense of melancholy here too. Pina was filmed in the relatively immediate aftermath of her death at a time when the fate of Tanztheater Wuppertal was uncertain. It is at once a sweet goodbye to a remarkable woman and an enduring record and statement of all that she left behind. It is sad, but at the same time, her wonderful dancers who have been touched and shaped and who can carry on the vibrant art themselves remain.