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'Pina: Dance, Dance Otherwise We Are Lost'
A 3D documentary tribute to Pina Bausch

Directed by Wim Wenders

reviewed by Carmel Morgan
January 2012

Acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ “Pina” is an amazing work of art that anyone who loves film or dance or both should run to go see. It’s a nominee for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars. See it, and you’ll see why people are gushing about it. With the 3D technology, you’ll be looking at on dance on screen as you’ve never seen it before, and it’s an exhilarating, jaw dropping experience.

If you’re reading this review on the CriticalDance website, then you’re likely a fan of dance. You also may be familiar with Pina Bausch already, and if so, it’s likely you appreciate her work. But even if you don’t often find yourself dancing or watching dance, and you have never heard of the famed German choreographer Pina Bausch, I enthusiastically recommend that you see “Pina” (and wear those silly looking 3D glasses). For me, the 3D was a little unsettling at first, but I quickly grew accustomed to watching the dancers take on a rounder, fuller, more human form on the screen. This is how dance should be seen on film, and Wenders was correct to wait until technology advanced enough to properly show Bausch’s choreography before embarking on making this documentary.

Unfortunately, Bausch died suddenly on June 30, 2009, just prior to the planned making of the film. Apparently, Wenders considered abandoning the project, but Bausch’s dancers urged him not to do so. The dancers are the living heart and soul of the documentary. You feel the anguish of their loss, and also the tremendous love and respect that they had for their teacher. Bausch had been firm in her desire that the film not include excessive narration, and Wenders honored this wish. In “Pina,” dance speaks for itself. What spoken language is used comes mostly from the dancers. While Wenders closes in on their faces, their disembodied voices give minimal, moving remarks about their relationships with Bausch. Their shared memories are tender ones, and funny. Bausch once advised a dancer, who was struggling with a role, “You just have to get crazier” (and that advice worked). She informed another dancer, “You have to scare me,” likewise with success. One dancer reported that Bausch asked her why she was afraid of her. “I didn’t do anything,” Bausch said. Through watching the film we realize that she was an intimidating, yet exceptionally loving, presence. It seems, too, that Bausch was intense, and intellectual, and spare with her own words. Sometimes, the dancers in their close up “interviews” say nothing at all about Bausch. You only see a dancer’s solemn face, and then glorious dancing, and no further communication is really needed. The long pauses and silent stretches in “Pina,” in fact, brilliantly emphasize the dancing.

As you might gather from reading this review this far, “Pina” does not tell you at length about the personal history of Bausch and her work. Snippets of old footage of Bausch as a young dancer, and as the leader of her dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, are incorporated into the film. “Pina” is unabashedly about the dances Bausch created, however. The documentary richly rewards viewers with scenes from some of Bausch’s most beloved dances. “Pina” primarily focuses on four pieces of choreography: “Le sacre du printemps,” “Café Mueller,” “Kontakthof,” and “Vollmond.” Although I was somewhat disappointed that “Pina” did not show at least one work in its entirety, it’s understandable that Wenders resorted to weaving together bits of Bausch’s dances. What a lengthy film it would be if Wenders had shown her complete works!

You see dancers rolling in dirt, splashing in water, dancing on a huge rock, and nearly flying off a canyon edge. There’s no doubt that Bausch was moved by nature and enjoyed exploring our relationship to nature in her works. There’s similarly no doubt that Bausch’s brand of dancing was inspired by serious human emotion and by lots of laughter. Men and women clumsily pursue each other. Movements are frequently exaggerated, and surprising, and quirky (witness the man on the tram with pointy cardboard ears!). The women often wear long, filmy, strapless gowns, their hair flowing. And then they’re covered by a shovel of soil, or doused by a bucket of water, or they act unexpectedly clownish. One dancer inexplicably wields a leaf blower, another embraces a huge hippo.

Bausch can fairly be called a genius. In addition, Wenders’ thoughtful construction of the film – his editorial choices – demonstrate his genius. Combine the two geniuses and you get a documentary that’s nothing short of extraordinary. At times, we in the movie theater are watching Bausch’s dances from seats facing the front of the stage, and at times, we’re actually on the stage with her dancers, among them as they emote and move as only her dancers can. Wenders gives us the intimacy and immediacy of Bausch’s choreography, and what a gift it is!

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