Prior to the death of choreographer Pina Bausch, she and director Wim Wenders had been collaborating on a performance film, to be shot in 3-D. Upon becoming artistic director of what came to be known as the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in 1973, Bausch developed a style based on presenting dancers with physical challenges. With Wenders, Bausch planned to preserve some of her best-known pieces in a format that could appropriately capture the sheer heft of what she put in her performers’ way.
It’s too bad that Wenders and Bausch never had a chance to make that film, if only because for those unfamiliar with Bausch’s work—and those largely dance-ignorant in general—it’d be helpful to see how her pieces looked under ordinary circumstances. As it is, Wenders, working in collaboration with Bausch’s troupe, breaks up the longer dance routines in his documentary Pina with interviews about the choreographer’s spiritual, aesthetic, and personal influence. The interviews are nice, but a little drippy, and they effectively prevent the dances from developing the way they were originally intended. For example: Dancers stumble around a stage full of chairs, performing Bausch’s classic piece Café Müller. Cut to: a rumination about art. Cut back to: more chairs. Repeat, until the audience loses track of exactly how long—or why—they’ve been watching trained professionals bump into furniture.
All of that said, Pina is still frequently a marvel, with Wenders making at-times-visionary use of the 3-D technology, treating the frame like a stage with multiple planes of action. And Bausch’s work is as original as advertised, with choreography that involves the addition of visually arresting obstacles to the dance floor: dirt, say, or a huge rock, or pouring water. One of the best ideas in Pina is a bit of turnabout, wherein some of the shorter dances take place outdoors, in locations where nature flows and it’s the dancers who are in the way. It’s a fine way of recontextualizing the conflict of the organic and the man-made that recurs in the stage-bound pieces in the film. It’s also representative of Pina’s major flaw: the inability of artists to get out of their own way.