Philippina "Pina" Bausch, one of the major figures in the landscape of modern dance, founded her Tanztheater in Wuppertal, Germany in 1972, and for anyone whose only encounter with European modern dance is catching a bit of Mummenschanz on PBS, Pina’s work is staggering stuff.
In "Pina," German director Wim Wenders tells the story of Pina’s Tanztheater though the voices and movements of the dancers whom Pina directed, and through the alternately whimsical and serious pieces they created collaboratively for nearly forty years.
The dances, which occupy the vast majority of the film, build on repetitive gestures and rough staccato motions that look wrenching and at times painful. Modern dance often seems concerned with death, and Pina's are no exception (one dance even features an older dancer shoveling dirt onto a younger as she slowly dances away.) Many (if not all; the film certainly feels comprehensive) of Pina's earliest collaborators share space with newer dancers, and the film finds something in the interplay between young and old, suggesting the passage of time.
It's often very serious, and Wenders lightens the mood when he can, but eventually all that we are left with is a long procession of dancers, who each appear briefly as a talking head before Wenders gives us their dance. As dancer after dancer has their moment onscreen, most of them offering only mournful platitudes, sincere as they may be, the film starts to feel a little stale.
Bausch died suddenly of Cancer in 2009, just a few days after diagnosis, and a few before Wenders was set to begin this film. Unavoidably, there is an air of melancholy about the whole film, often examining the work as something in the past, the future uncertain.
Wenders takes a welcome, hands-off approach, never inserting himself as a presence, and keeping his focus squarely on the work. It should go without saying that a film about dancing can never quite achieve the visceral feeling of seeing a dancer live on stage, so, to his credit, Wenders abandons the stage as often as possible, bringing the dancers to locations such as industrial parks, forests, and even a quarry.
It's practically impossible not to compare "Pina" to fellow German director Werner Herzog's recent 3D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." Both Herzog and Wenders have traditionally been equally at home in fiction and non-fiction, but whereas Herzog’s films are lately given to rampant flight of fancy and arcane bits of oddness and forced eccentricity, Wenders film, like his subject, feels measured and restrained (though there is one dance scene that feels like it could have been lifted a Herzog film of the same material, involving, of all things, a hippopotamus.) Both films find more than a few interesting ways to use the 3D technology, but if you weren't convinced of 3D’s merits before, there’s little here to change your mind.
Though it might disappoint those looking for a more cohesive through-line, Pina is at its best when it examines the role of dance in the lives of the dancers, allowing their movements to tell Bausch’s story as much as their words. It’s a film for, not about Pina, as Wenders instructs us at the beginning, and in the end, what we are left with is not so much a sense of who Pina was, but who she was to her dancers, and what they were to her.