When I saw Wim Wenders introduce his latest film, Pina – a majestic remembrance and celebration of the late German choreographer, Pina Bausch – he remarked that he was the least likely person to have made a film about dance. He had hated dance, had scoffed at his girlfriend’s idea 25 years earlier to go see a Bausch show in Venice (a dance show? On a beautiful evening in such a romantic city?) But Wenders gave in, anticipated two hours of boredom, and proceeded to be blown away by the performance.
That night in Venice, Wenders told us, was an experience his brain could not comprehend but that his body most certainly understood. It’s not hard to imagine, given the abstract tendencies of contemporary dance, what such a visceral, emotional experience feels like, but it is hard to convey through a screen, as Wenders immediately wanted to do. It was only twenty years after this revelatory moment, at a screening of U2 3D, that a solution presented itself.
More than Cave of Forgotten Dreams even, Pina is a groundbreaking moment in 3D filmmaking. Both movies document experiences or locations that would have been visually and emotionally flattened in 2D. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams has only selected scenes where the power of 3D comes to the fore (the albino alligators at the end and the weirdo rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” would be just as inexplicable in 20 dimensions). Pina, meanwhile, is made up almost entirely of dance performances, a series of visual spectacles that continuously display 3D’s grand possibilities.
Bausch’s work is preoccupied with themes of loneliness and fraught human relationships, both of which are very often conveyed through physical distance on stage. The dancers run to and from each other and jump into each other’s arms, out of fear, agony, longing, or desire. Wenders’ 3D allows us to feel the full effect of these distances and their collapse. In the first extended piece – the primordial, aggressive, disturbing Rite of Spring, performed by barely clothed men and women on a stage covered with soil – we watch the Neanderthal-like male lead stand before a fear-stricken, huddled group of women. Shot over the male’s shoulder, the anxiety and power dynamics of the situation shoots through the screen.
Or, as Wenders remarked in his introduction, the screen in fact disappears as a restriction to our viewing. In each performance, as the stage fills with more people and Bausch’s exploration of space becomes more elaborate, more explicit, it becomes increasingly clear that Wenders needed 3D not for what pops out at you from the screen but for the increasing depth of image it creates. The 3D image begins at the audience member and extends out dynamically, so that in Pina, the full extent of the choreography is suddenly at hand, the different planes of action in the fore, middle, and background at once clear yet distinct from each other.
Parts of what we see in Pina are filmed public performances, but Wenders importantly does not only shoot from the pseudo-objective audience perspective. In all the dances, he makes his camera part of the performance, placing it in the middle of the stage to get a particular point of view, or moving it along with the dancers in order to best capture the heart of the movement. Here it is not the technology that is on display but Wenders’ technical ability, his artistic prowess, his obvious familiarity and love for the material. 3D gives the necessary look, but Wenders’ shots and edits are what allow the emotional effect that he described – the enthralling moment when one begins to move with the dancers and feel their emotions with them – to come through. When the camera swoops elegantly from one side of the stage to the other or tracks to get a close up shot of a particular dancer, this is not how we see dance on stage but it is how we feel it.
The four Bausch pieces that Pina features – Rite of Spring, Café Müller, Kontakthof, and Vollmond – are danced on stage. But for the rest of the film, Wenders spotlights solos or duets performed by each of the dancers in Bausch’s company. These scenes take place in various outdoor locations, from urban locales like a railway station, a factory, or a street corner, to natural landscapes: the edge of a river, a forest, a desert canyon.
It’s in these scenes that Pina most transcends documentation and becomes a celebration. Whereas in the staged scenes the 3D helps to realistically convey the full force and emotion of the dances, in the outdoor scenes the 3D visuals so shimmer and shine that realism is lost: the backdrops are resplendent to the point of looking like painted images. In such a world, the dancers, who sweep, tiptoe, dash, and spin through the various locations, seem part of a dream. A new world comes alive before us, one like our own but made magic by Wenders’ camera and the dancers’ movements. The dancers, whose performances are wordless answers to Wenders’ questions about Bausch, take their love of the late choreographer into the world and enliven the surroundings with her spirit.
All this adds up to a spectacular, if draining experience, a full throttle ride through one woman’s way of seeing, one woman’s transcendent expression of the basic tensions, frailties, and vulnerabilities of human life, but also of its many joys and splendors. In Pina, with Pina and her dancers, Wenders has presented Bausch’s life’s work with the passion and care it deserves.
Dance at its heart is an exploration of life through movement, itself one of our most basic relations to space, the world, and the people around us. So when Bausch speaks at the end of the film, “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost,” it is a vocal reminder (unneeded, to a certain extent, after all the visual ones that preceded it) of the basic primacy of her art: dance as a window to the ground floor of the human experience; dance as nothing short of life itself.