Shall We Dance? by David Bax
If you’re hoping to emerge from viewing Wim Wenders’ new documentary, Pina, having learned about the life of German modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch, the film’s ostensible subject, allow me to warn you away from that expectation. What Wenders has made is not so much a documentary about Bausch as it is a remembrance of her; an impressionistic eulogy of sorts. Beyond that, though, the film is an expression of the worthiness of expression. Bausch felt the need to create and Wenders details why that can be a selfless impulse that leads to a more harmonious world.
Pina’s format is mostly composed of extended and gorgeous recreations of Bausch’s dances punctuated by interviews with her acolytes – colleagues and students, mostly. Also included is some older footage of Bausch and of some performances of her work but these occur early on and are mostly there by way of introduction to the woman and her output.
All of this is presented in 3D. This film differs in many ways, though, from the last time a German auteur made a 3D documentary. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams contained so much handheld footage as well as sections photographed without 3D cameras that the effect was useless at best; at worst, it distracted from what was an otherwise worthy entry in Herzog’s filmography. Pina, on the other hand, is almost entirely staged and choreographed. With this level of meticulous control in addition to the fact that we are witnessing something that was designed to be presented on a stage both occupied and observed by real, three-dimensional people, Wenders has achieved what I am prepared to call the best and most worthy use of 3D I’ve ever seen.
Many of Bausch’s dances are recreated on just such a stage, with the camera largely recording them from perspectives that would be possible from the audience. Others, however, are relocated to real-world settings. Wenders places these throughout in a deliberate way. At first, they take place in nature – at the top of a hill or alongside a stream. Then they move very abruptly into the city with a dance performed on a moving monorail car and then another on a street corner. Finally, we get dances set in locales that blend the two. One is presented inside a room with glass walls overlooking a verdant landscape. Another stunning example takes place on an expanse of grass that we only realize once the camera moves is nearly in the shadow of some massive, modern bridge-like structure. With these choices, the filmmaker is acknowledging first that dance comes from a primal place but then conceding that, in being choreographed and constructed, it is emblematic of humanity’s forward intellectual progress. In blending the images of the two sides of dance, Wenders is offering a definition of the art form – of all art forms, perhaps.
Modern dance may not be the most commercial art and cinema may well be. The result is to make accessible works and whole modes of expression many people would never otherwise see. To a person who thinks these dances will be silly, a mere description of them would do nothing to convince her or him. To see them so exuberantly and whimsically staged, though, is an experience of power that is difficult to deny.
Currently, I still don’t know all that much about the life of Pina Bausch. That’s not what this film is for. What I do know is that she was committed to giving beauty to the world and, in making Pina, Wenders has continued her work.