The name Pina Bausch might not ring a bell, but even if you don't follow modern dance, you might still be aware of her work as a choreographer - movie fans will remember the two haunting dance pieces she created that bookend Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her.
But whether you're a dance fanatic or know absolutely nothing about the subject, Wim Wenders' new documentary Pina is a must-see. The 3D movie is an exhilarating experience, both in its celebration of Bausch's groundbreaking work and in the thrilling way that Wenders captures it on camera.
The German-born Bausch (1940-2009) revolutionized dance by incorporating everything from uniquely jerky and off-putting movements to natural elements like soil, boulders and rainfall in her stage productions. (Wenders flips the script by taking her dancers outside of the theater and letting them do their thing in rivers and forests, factories and city sidewalks, and even onboard a moving elevated train.)
These dances tackle the big issues - love, pain, heartbreak - but they're theater and poetry and comedy and drama and even occasional moments of horror all rolled into one provocative, riveting package. This isn't choreography of the look at the pretty swans school or even our bodies are geometry in motion, but something else entirely.
Bausch was known as an unusually collaborative choreographer, so the dancers who appear in the film weren't just led by her; they had a role in both creating and executing the pieces that Wenders has filmed.
Wenders, for his part, doesn't just plant his camera to capture the performance: He makes dancers appear and disappear within the frame, and turns a line of young, suit-clad male dancers into a group of old ones, wearing the same outfits.
What Wenders doesn't do, unlike so many of his contemporaries, is edit the dancing with an ADHD buzzsaw. The director actually lets us see these performers from head to toe, and we get to watch them execute a full range of motion without the cut-cut-closeup-insert-shot style that bedevils so many recent musicals and dance movies.
By and large, this is a performance film, and a whizbang whirligig of one, so it's unclear why Wenders decided to keep cutting away to interviews with dancers (who are never identified by name on screen), when their reflections on Bausch are all variants of She was amazing, She was a visionary, She was a poet, etc. Taken as a whole, these testimonies carry all the weight of one of those DVD extras where all the stars of a film gush over how much they enjoyed working together.
When Wenders occasionally cuts to footage of Bausch herself in performance or leading a rehearsal, however, we see in her face and in her every movement that this woman was indeed an extraordinary artist.
In one sequence, in the middle of a dance, Pina cuts to a clip of Bausch rehearsing dancers doing that very same piece, and it's a potent reminder that even the most free-form-looking movements were planned out and practiced before well they emerged on the stage.
Werner Herzog was justly praised for his use of 3D in the somewhat overrated documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, using the medium's depth of field to convey the enormity of the titular chasms. But Wenders takes it further, letting 3D not only provide a dimensionality to the performance space but also bringing Bausch's natural elements (like water and leaves) off the screen and into the audience space.
It's easy to think of modern dance as pretentious and inaccessible if you haven't seen much of it, but if you've decided it's not your cup of tea, Pina is the sort of experience that will make you rethink your position. And if you're already an admirer of the choreographer's work, this kinetic film provides the perfect snapshot of a brilliant career.