Doc of the Day: Pina Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Pina

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 19, 2012

A tribute to the life and work of choreographer Pina Bausch, presented through her own art.

Dir. Wim Wenders, 2011, 103 min

Pina is a difficult film to describe. It’s not quite a biography of a woman, not quite a presentation of her life’s work, not quite a narrative, and not quite comprehensible. As an outsider to the world of dance, I’m not familiar with Pina Bausch’s style or pieces, but I gather that it was heavily impressionistic and subjective. In that way, this film does a brilliant job of capturing her essence. Which is to say that anyone looking for a coherent, educational story should look elsewhere. But anyone who wants to provoke some thought, or just look at some cool dancing, should seek this out.

Pina Bausch was a celebrated German dancer and choreographer, and she held great influence in contemporary dance movements from the 1970’s until her death of lung cancer in 2009. At the time of her death, Wim Wenders was about to start filming this documentary with her, focusing on her work with her company and her theater, the Tanztheater Wuppertal. What was meant as a profile of the woman instead became a tribute.

The film features the Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers performing sections from several of Pina’s most famous pieces. Interspersed are the dancers relating memories of their departed friend and leader. Many of them worked with Pina for decades, and learned how to fully express themselves from her. She believed in dance as an outpouring of the inner self, and deeply affected the lives of those she mentored.

Pina’s dance philosophy is fully evident in what we see on film. While I could only start to guess at the intended meaning of the pieces, they are so visually powerful that they easily arrest your attention. Men and women circle one another around a red dress, on a stage covered with dirt. A blind woman stumbles through a café, which is a sea of chairs and small tables. Three different generations act out the same ritualistic courtship, their separate variations intercut with one another. It makes little sense on a rational level, but speaks loudly to the emotions.

Wenders shot Pina in 3D, and while my showing was glasses-free, it’s obvious that the film would work like gangbusters in the format. Beyond the flying dirt, water, chairs, and other props and elements, Wenders is a master of spacial dynamics. It’s dazzling how he places and moves the camera, and makes it work with the placement and actions of the dancers. It imbues Pina’s visuals with an even greater visceral hold, and I think it’s might be more fun to watch them this way than in live theater.

My favorite parts of the doc weren’t the reminiscences or the stage performances, but the smaller pieces acted out by the dancers around the city of Wuppertal. Wenders finds beautiful locations, such as an elevated railway or a glass house in a forest, and exploits them to great effect. These vignettes possibly make even less sense than the stage sections, but the way the dancers move with the locations, even make the locations dance with them, is dazzling.

Pina is a love letter to Pina Bausch, written in her own words (so to speak). Just like her art, it conveys its message in a mostly oblique manner, but you still read it clearly. She was about emotion in movement, and this documentary is a stirring cavalcade of emotion. I think Pina would be proud to see it.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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