One of the few concrete tidbits we learn about German dance choreographer Pina Bausch over the course of the new 3-D documentary “Pina” is that she was a woman of few words. As should rightfully be expected from someone whose preferred mode of expression is bodily motion, she was of the opinion that dance expresses much more about the human condition than words ever can.
Which makes reviewing a film about her work somewhat of an unfair fight. I cannot dance, and even if I could, decades of precedent dictate that criticism be expressed via words, as opposed to … other mediums. So, what to do?
Well, let’s start with the fact that, like the motions of dance, this film exists in a perpetual state of fluidity, even as far as its own genre is concerned. Though it recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, “Pina” isn’t one, or at least it shouldn’t be considered one, according to director Wim Wenders. The film consists entirely of dance performances, and Bausch choreographed these dances to tell stories and communicate ideas. In that sense, Wenders has postulated in interviews, they’re really elaborate fictions, no? So don’t call it a documentary. Call it a greatest-hits collection.
Bausch, revered for decades throughout Europe and abroad before Wenders approached her to collaborate on a film, died only days before production began. Wenders was going to cancel the film, until Bausch’s dance troupe rallied to complete the movie as a tribute. This lends the whole proceedings an extra air of poignancy and wistfulness.
Divided into “seasons,” the film’s four central set-pieces are as breathtaking as one might expect. The first, inspired by Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring,” features women who break into existence out of the stage’s soil-coated ground. The second is perhaps Bausch’s most famous selection: “Cafe Muller”, an avant-garde number in which blind women stumble around a large room while the men push tables and chairs out of their way.
Pedro Almodovar devotees will recognize “Muller,” as his wondrously bizarre 2002 film “Talk To Her” opens with the protagonists watching its performance. A fitting collaboration, since both works deal with the idea of communication between the sexes, and how such a thing can sometimes feel like banging your body over and over against a wall.
It seems sometimes like Bausch is mocking the traditional categorization of dance, staging her performers in such an abstract and minimalist manner as though snapping at her audience, “Yeah? So what?” Yet her less, shall we say, exuberant numbers are affecting in ways wholly separate from the visceral pleasure of watching twisty bodies in motion. One piece is presented as an audition where the “dancers” essentially stand in one place and pivot for much of the number, and here Wenders’ role becomes apparent, as his cuts between three different casts of three different ages in identical positions on the stage are what create the intended effect.
Wenders, a veteran filmmaker (“Wings of Desire,” “The Buena Vista Social Club”), possesses too much imagination to simply film a stage, no matter how impressive the people on the stage may be. So interspersed with the big production numbers, Wenders and his dancers break out beyond the abstractness of the curtain, in solo or duet ventures, in locales ranging from public squares to industrial corridors to rivers to mountains. It’s a brilliant device, a reminder that the art of dance has been around for at least as long as people have been on Earth.
Thanks to its successful embrace in 2011 by Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Werner Herzog, 3-D has been elevated to “not always a complete waste of your money” status — a marked improvement from its previous status, “only worth it if you’re seeing ‘Avatar’.” What the addition of that dimension allows “Pina” is simply a more accurate simulation of the act of taking in a live performance. The stage has greater depth, and the performers seem to possess more physical being.
Funny enough, though, the 3-D’s effectiveness also carries with it the potential to invoke great sadness in the audience — sadness that what we are watching is so close to, but is not actually, being performed live right in front of us for our benefit. (It is an avatar of a Bausch performance, if you will.)
If Bausch’s dance troupe has enough business sense, they will launch a “Pina Live Tour” in America on the heels of this movie, while we’re still basking in the wonderful glow of a fine art we don’t quite understand.
Opens Friday, Feb. 3 at AMC Georgetown and AMC Rio (ticket will include 3-D surcharge).
Written and directed by Wim Wenders
Starring Pina Bausch and her dance troupe
Run time: 103 minutes