A woman boards a suspension railway car, her face cloaked by wild, dark hair. As she stands in the aisle, slowly flexing, her every movement seems to produce loud, uncouth sounds one might associate with the emergence of a Creature from the Black Lagoon.
That’s just one arresting scene from Pina, Wim Wenders’ 3-D dance film that isn’t just for dance fans. On the contrary — in an assessment of choreographer Pina Bausch’s work, shortly after her death in 2009, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay noted that her pieces were avant-garde theater as much as dance, and attracted a correspondingly broad audience. Then Macaulay asked a troubling question: “How much of [Bausch’s] choreography, if any, can survive her?” After acknowledging that bits of her work have been captured on film, he concluded that “mainly, as they say, you had to be there.”
Did you? Wenders — who was already planning his documentary about Bausch when she died unexpectedly, at 68 — seems to have constructed Pina as one long rebuke to Macaulay’s claim. Using 3-D cameras on telescopic cranes, the venerable German director (best known for Wings of Desire) puts viewers not just in the audience but on the stage with the dancers of Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal.
In the film’s long opening sequence, an excerpt from Bausch’s take on Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” we see the depth in the real dirt the dancers pound beneath their feet. We glimpse the primal desperation in the eyes of the female dancers as they offer one of their male counterparts a totemic red dress. And we feel the dramatic weight of the moment when that offering is finally accepted. Whatever is happening, we are there, witnessing it in the present tense, not through the traditional documentarian’s lens of context and commentary.
Wenders maintains this immediacy throughout the film, which alternates between staged ensemble performances and solos or pas de deux that take place in the public spaces of Wuppertal — on public transit, on a traffic-circle median, beside an indoor swimming pool. Filmed at the moment right before spring leaves unfurl, these surreal sequences have an intense, febrile beauty.
Bausch wasn’t a huge fan of words, as her dancers attest, so Wenders goes out of his way to prevent the interview segments from blocking the film’s flow. Members of the company speak about Bausch in voiceover as we gaze at images of their silent (yet expressive) faces. If Wenders wanted to sever the language of the mind from the language of the body, he’s succeeded; anyone seeking basic biographical information about Bausch, or analysis of her place in German culture and the history of dance, will need to look elsewhere. The highly personal reminiscences offered in the film suggest that Bausch was a blend of choreographer, Method acting teacher and guru, given to cryptic utterances like “You need to be more crazy” rather than critiques.
Without the dancing, these interviews might come off as testimonies from an esoteric cult, but Wenders has already enlisted us as members. The proof of Bausch’s method is in the results. Pieces such as “Café Müller” — which Wender presents at length, integrating modern with archival footage — have an emotional accessibility that more abstract practitioners of modern dance lack. Like the pantomime of silent films, Bausch’s work appeals on a level that is preverbal, yet rich in wit and subtlety.
When this review appears on newsstands, you will have only two days left to view Pina locally in 3-D. Take advantage of them.