As a three-dimensional form, dance is best seen live. Film, no matter how clever, is a poor substitute for the stage. But Wim Wenders' 3D documentary, Pina, a tribute to the German choreographer Pina Bausch, upends that notion. With Pina, we don't so much get the benefit of 3D—we get something far more daring. In it, dance and film don't coexist but become an entirely new art form. For the first time, the perspective of the viewer shifts. Instead of seeing dance from a distance, you are up close, sometimes face to face.
And what action! Pina is thrilling in intensity, in its bold, reckless and surreal atmosphere, in its intelligence and theatricality.
Take the opening work, Le Sacre du Printemps for example. Almost immediately after the crew has finished spreading red dirt on the stage floor of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, you are swept into the world of primitive human sacrifice. Figures fairly loom over you, whether it is a tight-knit band of men stamping furiously, or the slow, reluctant step forward of each potential victim, holding a red cloth in supplication, her face contorted with fear. Like a silent plea for help, those faces bear down on you.
Outside the theater, the perspective is even more dizzying. We feel we are riding the same monorail suspended high over the industrial city of Wuppertal, watching a woman whose face in hidden by a mane of black hair slapping, kicking and stamping on a pillow.
Except for the clear meaning of Sacre, nothing else in Bausch's world is straightforward. Instead, tantalizing, fractured images that suggest love, rage, fear, confusion—the whole gamut of human emotion—arise with the ferocity of a bubbling caldron or subside into a full-throated roar.
The film almost didn't happen. Bausch and Wenders toyed with the idea of collaboration for 20 years. Stymied by the challenge of capturing dance on film, especially dance with no story, the idea sat dormant. Only when Wenders discovered the digitally production of the 3D concert of U2 did the idea get off the ground. But two days before filming was to begin, Bausch died. Devastated, Wenders pulled the plug.
The dancers, however, prevailed, and the result is something quite different from the original plan. The four works meant to be filmed still appear, but now they are interspersed with wistful reminiscences of the dancers, and short solos that follow the voice-over comments.
In one scene, a dancer topples, her body as ridged as a board, into the hands of a waiting man. She tilts at such a daring angle that her face all but touches the ground. In another scene, a woman in a red dress leaps onto a chair, pitching it forward, and that runs playfully through the grass to the next chair. Yet in another scene, a man emerges from beneath an industrial landfill, thrashing and whirling. He scrambles up a barren mountain, and the next image is of him cascading down a boulder in the ballet Vollmond (Full Moon). There he joins others to slide and splash in a river of water that fills half the stage.
Those swift shifts of images from outdoors to the stage, or of dancers magically transformed from old to young, are more than tricks of vantage point. They make a subtle statement about life and death, earth and sky, water and wasteland, made possible by a harmony of means between Bausch's theatrical intuition and Wenders' visual acuity.
Dance is an ephemeral form, best illustrated here by the repeated images of rows of dancers moving in slow procession across the stage as they make deliberate, repeated hand gestures. Their smiles are directed at us. The procession reappears in different settings until at the end, at the edge of the wasteland, their eyes now focused on a distant landscape, they disappear beneath the setting sun.
There could be no more fitting tribute to a great choreographer than this gift to the world.
◊ Pina opens Friday, Feb. 3, at the Cinemark West Plano (in 3D), and at the Angelika Film Center Dallas (in 2D).
◊ Read our interview with Wim Wenders here.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.
◊ Here's the film's trailer, followed by a clip from one of the sequences: