I’ve saved for the last posting of films seen on my recent New York binge trip, far and away the best: Pina.
With a primary focus on stage plays for most of my life, I’d had little appreciation for or understanding of “modern dance.” Before I was 51 (and she was 50), I had never heard of Pina Bausch or her little Dance Theater in Wuppertal, not far from Düsseldorf, Germany. Then, some 20 years ago, back in graduate school, a wise professor showed his class of directors-to-be a film of Pina Bausch’s staging of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” His message was clear: In making theatre, if we ever expected to understand the function of structure and form and spectacle and color and ritual … and need and movement and intention and barriers and resistance — we could not do better than to seek out the work of Pina Bausch. And there is no greater confirmation of his message than the new film, Pina.
German director Wim Wenders, who gave us the very beautiful Wings of Desire, as well as Paris, Texas and many others, was a close friend of Bausch, and was ready to do a documentary of her dance theatre on tour. But when she died suddenly in 2009, he decided to film a tribute to her work, using her Tanztheater Wuppertal ensemble and her creative choreography. He made the radical decision to do the filming in 3-D, and has produced one of the most exciting cinematic works of art I’ve ever seen.
Wenders, like Scorcese, has been bowled over by the potential of 3-D cinematography. Both have invented new ways for the process to serve their work without drawing attention to technical gimmickry. Pina is the first so-called “art film” in 3-D, and will surely become a trend-setter. It’s hard to call this even a “documentary.” It’s more like a cinematic album dedicated to memorializing Bausch’s brilliance. There’s no plot, no conventional narration — just beautiful, poignant and dramatic (sometimes comic) movement, accompanied by soaring music and occasionally the thoughts of the dancers. Solo dances focused on memories of Bausch are performed in interior and stunning exterior locations in and near Wuppertal, and there are four ensemble pieces that had been choreographed by Bausch in preparation for their tour, including “Rite of Spring.” Some of her work is powerfully dramatic, and some is hilarious. Her chief technique was to ask deep, intimate questions of her dancers to which they could respond only with movement. Her work is deeply emotional and instinctive, said to focus on passion, love, and the crossing of barriers.
In the end, I can’t really pretend to understand what I was watching. I didn’t have the vocabulary or experience, or any foreknowledge whatsoever of the world of dance. But I imagine that choreographers, like theater directors, care more about questions than answers, and are less interested in impressing the cognoscenti than in reaching the average man on the street. I only know I was mightily affected, and left the Lincoln Center Film Society in tears … and with the giggles.