Wim Wenders’s Pina is partly a documentary but mostly a tribute to German choreographer Pina Bausch. The majority of the film consists of performances by the dancers in the Tanztheater Wuppertal Company, who were lead by Bausch for 36 years up until her death in 2009. For those of us who are dance-curious yet a bit cynical about the value of contemporary dance, being introduced to Bausch’s work via a film as energetic and inspired as Pina is something of a revelation. Suddenly it all makes sense. In her work we can see the combination of technical skill, theatrical innovation and personal expression that makes the performances so fresh and relevant.
Whether intimate pieces or large ensemble works, the performances often extend beyond the confines of the traditional stage to incorporate a range of objects, with dirt, water and chairs seemingly being favourite motifs of Bausch’s. Wenders further emphasises this bold use of space by continually contrasting performances inside a theatre to performances in the wild, in urban spaces and in industrial spaces. Bausch’s radical approach to theatrical space is clearly a wonderful inspiration for how to use film space.
Not only has Wenders created a film that truly expresses the power of the performances, but he also suitably enhances specific pieces through the use of uniquely cinematic techniques. We get to view the performances from a number of vantage points, but Wenders also gives us close-ups and even point-of-view shots from some of the dancers. Dissolves are used gracefully to flow from one piece to another, freeze-frames dramatically amplify a piece that utilises flash photography and one routine constantly cuts between an ensemble of older dancers and an ensemble of young dancers.
Perhaps most significantly, Wenders uses 3D cinematography not so that the elements on screen jump out at the audience, but to give a real physical depth to the space of the performances. The results are some of the best, and appropriate, uses of 3D technology. The 3D in Pina feel so much more than a novelty and like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams it actually feels essential. While the use of 3D is seemingly already beginning to run out of steam in Hollywood cinema, it’s tremendous to see innovators like Herzog and Wenders putting it to use with such a sense of purpose.
Ultimately the real star of Pina is Pina Bausch who lives on in the film through some archival footage but mainly through her choreography. Wenders wisely has the various dancers only speak off screen, played over close-up shots of them looking down into the camera. By not actually seeing the dancers physically speak, the idea that they truly communicate through dance is further conveyed. The small fragments of speech that Wenders does allow each performer frequently relates to their relationship with Bausch and how so much of who they are as people and dancers fuelled the performances that she developed out of them. This then becomes evident when we see the performances, which are so expressive and passionate as well as technically accomplished.
Possibly more so than cinema, dance is one of the trickiest art forms to articulate why it works or doesn’t work. In Pina it definitely works as the combination of stagecraft, technical prowess and raw emotion is frequently overwhelming. The whole range of human emotion is expressed and experienced during this film, making it a sublime visual accomplishment. Audiences already interested in contemporary dance will possibly find Pina a transcendent experience while those of us who are new converts will be energised by the new discovery we have just made.