A Moving Performance of Feelings

Finally, there is a 3-D movie to be excited about.

“Pina,” directed by Wim Wenders, is a tribute and celebration of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009 at the age of 68.  Bausch’s stunning dances take the viewer to the furthest edge of raw emotion, and when filmed in 3-D, the distance between viewer, performer and stage seems to collapse, heightening the already considerable emotional impact.  The effect is mesmerizing.

Wenders also stretches the documentary genre by staging his interviews with individual dancers as performances.  We hear the words of a dancer, spoken in one of the many languages represented by Bausch’s international troupe, but the dancers themselves, on film, do not speak.  Instead, their faces express their words.  Though seated, they are dancing, dancing with their faces, with their memories and stories of Pina.  Their words seem to float outside their bodies—in 3-D, the subtitles literally do appear to float in an intermediate, hovering space—and this turns the most basic tool of the documentarian, the seated interview, into a kind of dance, a moving performance of feelings.

Most 3-D films of the last few years have used the format to impress or startle the viewer into a state of vigilant excitability.  Here, the technology serves the very meaning of dance: to explore the dimensionality of the human body in space, and to express the varied dimensions of human emotion and connection.

In one fascinating scene, two veterans of the dance company reminisce about Pina as they stand next to a small-scale model of a stage.  As Wenders turns his camera to the small diorama, its diminutive stage comes alive with actual dancers and props.  It’s a technical trick, yet also a brilliant staging of the way memory works.  For the dancers, the model is not a lifeless shell, it’s a portal for remembering.

The dance which they, and the film’s audience, watch, “Cafe Müller,” was incorporated by Pedro Almodovar into the opening of his movie “Talk to Her” (with Bausch herself as one of the dancers), and the themes of the dance are also those the Spanish director has explored throughout his career: the stripped-bare, paradoxical desperation for both closeness and freedom, intimacy and escape, the strange and familiar violence of human need.  In “Cafe Müller,” a frantic woman careens across a room while a man hurls chairs out of her way; a woman keeps falling out of a man’s arms and keeps throwing herself back into his embrace; the great English soprano Jennifer Vyvyan sings the haunting lament from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”—“Remember me,” she cries, as if to be forgotten is the worst of all crimes.

Pina, and “Pina,” will not be forgotten.  “Pina” is also about the community of dance artists she gathered, supported, nurtured and transformed.  Early in the film, Wenders shows a breathtaking performance of “Rite of Spring” on a stage transformed into an expanse of dark earth.  Moving with the fierce sounds of Stravinsky’s primal score, the dancers become streaked with dirt and sweat.  This is art that leaves traces, on body and soul, and one understands from the spoken interviews the depth of the company’s enduring love of their departed mentor and guide.

“Pina” is currently playing at the Osio in downtown Monterey, though not in 3-D; I strongly urge interested viewers to make the drive up to Santa Cruz, where it is showing in 3-D in the grand Del Mar Theatre on Pacific Street.  Pina Bausch’s life-affirming dances are theatrical, expressionistic, symbolic, elemental.  Wenders’ achievement is to bring us close to the dream of art: to capture and convey the limitless dimensionality of life.