The idea of “dance theater” (“Tanztheater” in German) evolved from expressionist dance in 1920s Vienna, with a new form developing and spreading throughout Central Europe beginning in 1917. The term re-emerged during the 1980s and Pina Bausch, a student of one of the leaders of this school of dance, became a new school practioner of note.
Since the 1970s, kicking off with her run as the artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet (later renamed the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch), Bausch blended movement, sound and various staging configurations and, with the members of her troupe, put her own stamp on modern dance.
Her short segments featured dialogue and action that was often set in natural environs touched with surreal elements, inspiring filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar (his movie Talk to Her not only embraces this aesthetic, but presents pieces of the idea to the filmgoing set). Bausch herself, back in 1983, even appeared in Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On.
So it is not surprising that Wim Wenders, director of Wings of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club (to name two films familiar to statesides audiences) and president of the European Film Academy in Berlin, decided to capture Bausch’s unique interpretation of dance theater on film. What is surprising (and fascinating) about the project was his decision — joining fellow German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) — to shoot in 3D, which has almost exclusively been a technical gimmick/fix for Hollywood genre junkies. Thankfully, Wenders and Herzog see the real potential of these effects to not only immerse audiences in a setting but also construct a visual foundation between the moving frame and a new, heightened experiential realm.
Wenders’ Pina bridges the divide between the audience and the action onstage, much like Bausch’s work. She brought the random nature of the after-hours cafe (along with the hills, mountains and floods) into theaters, and Wenders further extends the boundaries, exploding outward while simultaneously drawing us into those spaces. He partners the viewer with dancers and moves the audience around the stages or the streets as if it was another element in the artistic mix. Wenders doesn’t merely see audience members as spectators taking in the action of the art; they are actively engaged in the performance thanks to this third-dimensional perspective.
There are four sequences or segments in Pina, each with its own music and locational muses, plus accompanying interviews with members of the troupe. A stand-out piece, “Café Mueller,” was inspired by a cafe in Bausch’s hometown of Solingen where she spent time as a child. The scene’s cluttered arrangement of tables and chairs with a single door from which dancers enter and begin to interact with the environment and each other makes it appear as if they are probing the space for meaning and definition. It creates what becomes a lifelike loop out of chaos.
The diversity of nationalities, races, ages and body types cues us in on Bausch’s daring dismissal of social standards. She found beauty, sensuality and grace in the movements of all human bodies and the dancers willingly surrender to her approach, even to the point of shutting off one or more of their own senses because they realize such vulnerability will expose stronger and more beautiful expressions within the human experience.
One of the dancers speaks of the power of Bausch’s gaze as performances evolved during practice. Bausch saw the raw emotions as they were born in the dancers and that is exactly what Wenders captures in this film. The audience has to be willing to surrender something of themselves, too, to feel the blindness, the repetition of movement, the primal sexual energy. We cannot be afraid of it; in fact, the film says that it is part of our forgotten birthright.
Due to Bausch’s untimely death during the preparatory stages of the documentary, Pina feels, at times, more like a tribute. But even then it departs from the normal conventions one might be expecting. As we watch clips of a performing Bausch juxtaposed alongside the contemporary clips, or when we see and hear her comments on her craft and its impact on the world of modern dance, the film never wallows in sorrow over the loss, and that is likely why her dancers encouraged Wenders to re-start the project (he cancelled it, initially). It would have been a shame to lose her completely. Her voice, infused with urgent passion, challenges us all.
“Dance, dance,” she preaches, “otherwise we are lost.”Grade: A