Pina begins with a long line of dancers filing slowly onto a dark stage, their taut, elegant bodies and somber faces passing just inches from the camera. The moment is unnerving, not just because of their apparent closeness, a 3D illusion, but the intensity of their presence. You feel like a ghost at a funeral.
Wim Wenders’ masterful tribute to Pina Bausch, his close friend and a brilliant, revolutionary creator of dance theater who died in 2009, is packed with such moments. The physical presence of the dancers, from Bausch’s Wuppertal Dance Theater, is heightened by 3D filmmaking of such extraordinarily realistic and sensual quality that you can practically feel the sweat beading their muscular limbs. But Pina’s power comes from the way Wenders uses that illusion of living, flexing proximity to immerse you in Bausch’s dreamlike, emotionally vertiginous world. Watching Pina is like being inside one of Bausch’s surreal pieces.
Though it has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, Pina has only fleeting instances that gesture toward a traditional film autobiography. We see few images of Bausch, the German artist who was an international legend in the dance and theater worlds from the 1970s until her sudden, unexpected death from cancer a few days before filming on Pina was slated to start. Wenders abandoned the project, then returned at the urging of Bausch’s dancers. His film pays passionate tribute to the woman who was a friend and artistic inspiration, re-creating the feelings, images, and imagination of Bausch’s work.
Wenders puts his camera, and us, inside stagings of four of Bausch’s pieces; Café Muller, Le Sacre du printemps, and Kontakthof, all from the ’70s, and Vollmond, from 2006. In Sacre we’re eye level with the dirt-smudged face of the desperate sacrificial maiden lying on an earth covered stage, closing in as she pleads for mercy, as her companions swirl and stomp around us. We flinch as the dancers grapple with each other in the claustrophobic, chair-strewn Café Muller, avert our face from the water splashing around their hurtling bodies in Vollmond. We’re inside Bausch’s world, her imagination.
Just as magical, sometimes more so, are the sequences in which Wenders asked the dancers to express their memories and feelings about Bausch in movement, then set them outdoors. The dancers’ serene, utterly concentrated focus, their assured grace or careening velocity, stand out all the more in these mundane urban or beautiful natural surroundings, a bit of the surreal dropped into the everyday, highlighted by bright, clear light. A man spins a woman on a street under an overhead train; a woman caresses an enormous hippo in the middle of a river; another swirls through masses of leaves in a park. Some of the most visually riveting moments are on a bleak ridge surrounding a shallow, desert-like pit, where a man thrashes and hurls himself frighteningly close to its edge. A metaphor for the risks that Bausch took, perhaps?
Each of the 37 dancers has a moment alone in front of the camera, which caresses their faces, many of them worn by middle age (Bausch’s dancers often worked with her for years, even decades), their bodies sculpted by use. They’re a portrait of humanity, speak in a variety of languages about their experiences with and love for Bausch. But if their feelings are strong, they seem unable to express what they thought of their mentor in anything but poetic, instinctive words. “Meeting Pina was like finding a language,” says one. “She told me ‘You just have to get crazier.’ ” Says another: “You always feel more than just human working with Pina.”
Pina ends as it began, with the dancers walking in slow, single file, but this time they’re on that high, lonely ridge, moving into gathering darkness, set loose in the world by Bausch’s absence and imagination — and by this film.
Writer-director: Wim Wenders.
Producers: Wim Wenders, Gian-Piero Ringel.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 103 minutes. Opens Friday Feb. 17 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Regal South Beach.