The late choreographer Pina Bausch’s contribution to modern ballet is celebrated by Wim Wenders in this evocative 3D film, which has biographical elements but isn’t so much the story of her career as recognition of her artistry and influence.
Bausch, who was a noted dancer herself, made an international reputation as artistic head and ballet director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, where her blend of traditional ballet moves, modern dance and dramatic expression fostered a unique style of performance—and generated incredibly strong loyalty among the company membership. Wenders had been planning a film about her for years before her death in 2009, but actual production began only after it, so Bausch is glimpsed only in archival footage—some of her dancing, but most showing her rehearsing pieces as they were in process of creation.
One of the stipulations Bausch had apparently made in discussions with Wenders was that the film shouldn’t be constructed as a conventional biography, and the director follows that injunction (though his career suggests that he would have been unlikely to take such an approach anyway). So “Pina” is presented as an impressionistic collage of her work, with excerpts of her pieces–some danced on stage, others outside—shown in fairly random order. There is no narration, but the performances are punctuated by those archival clips and comments from members of her troupe. The latter, however, are about as impressionistic as the unspoken dances are. Unfailingly laudatory in a lyrical, poetic fashion, they tell us far more about the enormous debt the dancers feel to Bausch than they do about her technique or philosophy.
As to the dance sequences themselves, they range from substantial to very brief indeed. The longest is the extract from Bausch’s version of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which comes at the very start and might be usefully compared to the reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original 1913 staging available on a Bel Air Classiques DVD titled “Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes.” Two others, “Cafe Mueller” and “Kontakthof,” are also given at some length. Otherwise there’s a variable character to the excerpts, with some coming off better than others. They do, however, show off the skill of many of the company’s star dancers, who offer comments about performing them.
One wonders how Bausch, who thought of her works in holistic terms, would have reacted to such a virtual deconstruction of them. She might also have objected to the cinematic editing of some sequences (like the Stravinsky).
But whatever her scruples might have been, Wenders and the Tanztheater company have combined to offer a masterful tribute to Bausch’s unique vision, one that’s enhanced by 3D. With “Pina” Wenders demonstrates—as Werner Herzog did with “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”—how the format can be used for artistic purposes rather than merely as a marketing tool, as is so often the case. All it takes to justify 3D, it seems, is an appropriate subject—and a filmmaker of genius. How often that fortunate combination will occur, only time will tell.