In 'Pina,' director Wim Wenders finds what he's looking for in dance

Pina Bausch often took huge liberties with her performance spaces and her dancers took full advantage of them. For one performance featured in "Pina," part of the stage floods during the dance and the performers splash and hurl buckets of water at each other.
Photo for MPR courtesy of HanWay Films

For someone who has just made the Oscar-nominated documentary "Pina" perhaps the most acclaimed dance movie in years, Wim Wenders is straightforward in admitting that dance used to leave him cold.

"Yes, dance didn't mean that much to me until Pina showed me that dance could really touch me and could actually concern me," he said on the phone from Berlin.

Wenders was dragged to a show one night, and everything changed. Now, with the movie opening in Minnesota this weekend, that influence of German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch may be about to spread.

"I saw my first piece of hers, "Cafe Muller," and I realized that this woman showed me more about men and women in 40 minutes than in the entire history of cinema, without a single word. And that shocked me. And that made me understand that I had completely underestimated what could dance could possibly be," Wenders said.

Wenders, perhaps best known in the US for his feature films "Paris Texas" and "Wings of Desire," is also interested in documentary and arranged to meet Bausch the day after seeing that first show. He ended up pitching the idea of a film to her

Wim Wenders
Veteran German film director Wim Wenders.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"She really put dance upside down," he remembers. "Dance belonged to athletes and these trained superbodies, and Pina gave it back to common humanity. Her dancers are too small and too tall and too old and too voluptuous," he said. "And Pina doesn't care. Pina was not at all into aesthetics. Actually, I think she said it better herself than anybody else. She said, 'I am not interested in how my dancers move. I am only interested in what moved them.' And that reversal was a revolution. And that reversal was what made her dance so touching to me. Because it started to talk about 'us,' who we are, and I never thought dance could do that."

Bausch agreed to the project, although she stipulated she wouldn't do an on-camera interview as she believed the dance should speak for itself. Yet Wenders quickly saw he had bigger challenges, including the fact he wasn't sure how to make the film.

"I didn't make the film for 20 years, although Pina and I really wanted to do it badly. And I really would have dropped everything to do this film with her, except I didn't know how to do it," he said. "I didn't know how to do justice to dance. My tools, my craft weren't good enough."

One of the threads running through "Pina" is a simple sequence of four movements, each representing one of the seasons. The company repeats the movements while walking in line through the theater and then out into the world. It's a simple but joyous dance which seems to encapsulate Pina Bausch's movement philosophy.
Photo for MPR courtesy of HanWay Films

Yet when he saw "U2 3-D," the 2007 concert movie filmed during the Irish rockers' Vertigo tour, that he found an answer."

"And only when 3-D came up I realized there was a way to be with dancers, and no longer be watching like fish in the aquarium -- wanting to be in the aquarium but forever be outside staring in. With 3-D I could be with the dancers, in their own element, in space and I think that 3-D and dance really."

"Pina" is a remarkable piece of film making. Wenders takes viewers right inside the dances, some performed in the Pina Bausch Company's dance theater in Wuppertal, Germany, others in the streets and parks in the community.

Street dance
While Wim Wenders filmed much of Pina in the theater where many of the dances were created, he also shot several sequences in the streets and parks around Wuppertal in Germany where the Bausch Company is based.
Photo for MPR courtesy of HanWay Films

The dancers swirl around the camera, but this is not ethereal, wispy movement. The dancers pant, and sweat. In "Cafe Muller," some crash blindly into chairs and walls. And in Bausch's dance set to Stravinsky's, "The Rite of Spring," dozens of dancers pound out the beat on their own bodies, even as they move through tons of dirt spread on the stage. It's an awe-inspiring sight.

"'Rite of Spring' is so demanding they are completely, completely, exhausted afterwards, and so to show that and to be really close to them and to let the audience immerse into that exhaustion and into that utter transcendence I think was something again that only 3-D allowed me to," Wenders said.

But there was to be another challenge, and a heart-rending one at that. Seven days before Wenders was due to begin shooting, doctors diagnosed Bausch with cancer. Five days later she was dead.

Rite of Spring
To film Bausch's adaptation of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" Wenders first shot the theater crew spreading tons of dirt on the stage. As the dance progresses he moves the 3D camera through the dozens of performers, capturing not just the sound of them pounding out the beat on their own torsos, but also their panting as they work through the exhausting choreography.
Photo for MPR courtesy of HanWay Films

"When Pina died, I just walked away from the film. That was the end of it," Wenders said. "We had dreamt of it together for 20 years and that was it. It was over. I announced that I was walking away from it."

And that would have been that, except the members of her Tanztheater Wuppertal didn't give up Pina's dream

"The dancers continued the company and they actually performed the pieces that Pina had put on the schedule of the theater that we would film them together," Wenders recalled. "And they made me realize that maybe this was the last time these pieces would be performed. And all of a sudden I realized the more that I talked with them that there was a good reason to make this film after all. And it was impossible to make this film with Pina any more, but we could make it for Pina. And that the film might have as the only purpose that the dancers and I could say goodbye to Pina. And say thank you to Pina, which none of us had been able to."

The Oscar nomination comes on the heels of acclaim for the film just about everywhere it's been shown.

Wim Wenders says the film is special because it was once abandoned.

"And I think actually, without bragging, in the future it will be difficult to film dance in any other way," he concluded.

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