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BERLIN — It would be hard to find a more perfect match than Wim Wenders and Pina Bausch: two German artists who have left their mark on modern filmmaking and choreography to the point of becoming icons of their art. In his 3D dance film Pina, Wenders pays homage to the founder of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who in 2009 departed to “dance on the clouds.” The film, which was to have been a collaborative effort between the two long-time friends, is a must for dance buffs everywhere, who will lose themselves in her strange, hypnotic numbers. Major distribution could help widen audiences.
Much like Bausch, Wenders is an ever-curious artist who approaches filmmaking as an ongoing experiment. After straying a bit too far from the beaten track in Palermo Shooting, he is on familiar ground here and captures Bausch’s oeuvre with grace and assurance, mirroring its modernity in a striking, idiosyncratic use of the 3D format. In fact, apart from a few moments like an exciting water dance sequence in which it seems to be raining in the cinema, familiar 3D jump-outs are lacking. Instead, Wenders favors the stylistic device of making foreground figures stand out sharply from a deep background, giving the film a modern, painterly look.
Above all, the film focuses on the unique dances interlaced with gestures and movement created by Bausch in 35 years of intensive work. There is archive footage dating back to 1978, but the principal scenes are newly filmed in 3D with the members of her ensemble; one by one her multi-national, variously aged dancers say a few words about their awe-inspiring teacher and take center stage in curious dances. Without trying to imitate live dancing or filmed theater, the effect is powerful and suggestive of the bizarre, captivating modernism of pieces like “Rites of Spring” and “Cafe Muller” set to the stirring music of Stravinsky and Purcell; “Volmond” and “Kontakthof.”
In “Cafe Muller,” one of the rare numbers Bausch danced in herself, she is described as “seeming to have risen from the dead,” an image of pain, strength and loneliness. In the film she appears as the apotheosis of her emaciated dancers who seem to have stepped out of an Expressionist painting, their faces as individualistic and dramatic as any actor’s.
Wenders’ focus is on dance, not biography, and he prefers to leave Bausch herself an elusive mystery. She was a compulsive worker but, disappointingly, her personal life and motivations are not addressed.
The film conveys the image of Bausch as a cross between a guru and a psychotherapist, observing her dancers from behind a desk, as though they were extensions of herself. In the film they tend to speak of her like an omniscent god who, even with her eyes shut, saw everything they were doing. For Bausch, dance is a language and movement is somehow interchangeable with words. Snatches of her zen-like sayings dot the film: “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost,” “Dance for love,” and her sybilline advice to a confused young dancer, “Go on searching.”
Ably aided by cinematographers Helene Louvart and Jorg Widmer, Wenders stages the dances in an imaginative range of indoor and outdoor settings, including unexpected locations like a high school gym, a public swimming pool, the woods and an intersection in Wuppertal. Alternating with the more angst-ridden pieces are humorous, ingenious dance numbers like a woman who dances en pointe against a pleasingly harmonious industrial background, with pieces of meat incongruously stuffed in her ballet slippers.
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