In Wim Wenders' 3-D movie "Pina," Ditta Miranda Jasjfi… (Donata Wenders, Sundance…)
Like the great Pelé, Pina was a one-name person, a groundbreaking dancer and choreographer with accomplishments so one-of-a-kind that to her admirers no surname was necessary. But whether you're familiar with Pina Bausch's work or not, the new film "Pina" is a knockout.
Directed by the veteran Wim Wenders, "Pina" is the most exciting use of 3-D since "Avatar." The performance documentary takes us inside Bausch's extraordinary dances in a way that nothing else could.
In fact, though Bausch and Wenders had been talking about a filmed collaboration for 20 years, it wasn't until the director saw the three-dimensional performance footage in the concert film "U2 3D" that he felt he had found the key to bringing Bausch's work to the screen and doing it any kind of justice.
As the artistic leader of Germany's Tanztheater (dance theater) Wuppertal for 36 years, Bausch perfected a style of extremes and abandon, leavened with an unexpected playfulness, that was distinctly her own.
More than a visionary who saw things through different eyes and choreographed movements a human body wouldn't seem capable of, Bausch was passionate about the emotional content of work, concerned with the need and difficulty of basic human connections.
If there is sadness attached to this triumph, it's that Bausch herself did not live to see it. She died unexpectedly in 2009, just two days before the first rehearsals for the 3-D filming were to have begun. With the death of his collaborator, Wenders thought the project was over, but Bausch's dancers persuaded him to continue, which inevitably gives the finished film the feeling of a memorial.
One stricture Bausch was insistent on was that the film have no conventional narration and no explanatory material, which is just as it should be. Dance exists to be seen, to express, as the film says, the inexpressible, and any attempt to put any of that into words would be seriously beside the point.
Which is why, heartfelt though they are, the interviews with Bausch's dancers are the least effective parts of the film. The individuals who speak are never identified, and though they often have pithy memories — one says the only advice Bausch gave her in 20 years was "you just have to get crazier" — what they have to say feels extraneous to the main business of the film, which is making her dances come brilliantly alive.
For the first time since "Avatar," 3-D has been used in a way that is immersive, that takes you inside the dance experience, in effect giving you an unprecedented seat right in the middle of all the movement. We experience the dances both up close and in depth, feeling the excitement of the creative process in a way that, while no substitute for being there, puts us a whole lot closer than we've ever been before.
"Depth is not something you capture, but something you fabricate," the film's stereographer, Alain Derobe, said in explaining his visual philosophy in an American Cinematography interview. "3-D is not made to be a copy of reality, but an interpretation that is good for the eyes of the spectator."
"Pina" presents two different kinds of dance experiences. At its most expected, it presents four of Bausch's signature pieces, all filmed before live audiences. These are:
"Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring), a literally earthy interpretation of the 1913 Igor Stravinsky music in which stark ritual is played out on a stage covered in peat.
"Café Müller," set in a cafe where tables and chairs become unholy obstacles to connection.
"Kontakthof" (Meeting Hall), which is performed in three different versions: with the Bausch ensemble, with dancers ages 65 to 80, and with dancers ages 14 to 18.
"Vollmond" (Full Moon), which takes place in an onstage river of water.
But this is only part of the "Pina" experience. Wenders also places the movements of the dancers, whether alone, in pairs or larger groups, against the backdrop of Wuppertal's public spaces, be they parks, tunnels or the eerie Wuppertal Suspension Line monorail system. The results are, like everything else, beyond words.
Bausch herself appears in the film only sparingly, which is what she herself wanted. But the last clip Wenders shows is of Bausch by herself, which feels somehow right. As essential as her dancers were, all these wonders, all this dance, came about because of her, and now there will be no more.
MPAA rating: PG for some sensuality/partial nudity and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing at: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles