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It’s blasphemous to even consider, but: Perhaps Pina works better in 3D. The extradimensional version of Wim Wenders’ documentary on German choreographer Pina Bausch is supposed to offer Hugo-like beauty and reverie-inspiring immersion, even if you’re not an enthusiast of modern dance. I belong in that category but saw the film in 2D—and found it a somewhat scattered, occasionally alienating, and none-too-informative tribute that likely won’t win the artist nor the artform any new fans.
If you don’t know anything about Bausch and her background, you won’t learn it here. She died of cancer only days before filming was to start (and, in fact, only days after being diagnosed), necessarily changing the direction of the doc. As the opening shot of her image floating above an empty stage tells us, the film is for Pina instead of about her. And thus Wenders, who so intimately infiltrated another group of artists in 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club, lets the dancers of Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal troupe express their artistic director’s essence through movement.
The pieces Wenders shoots range from mesmerizing to innervating to bizarre, and sometimes include footage of Bausch dancing herself. You’ll be transfixed as she and then a slow-stepping line of dancers demonstrate the seasons with simple but spot-on motions of their arms, a lighthearted leitmotif that repeats at film’s end. Other offerings are more serious and challenging, including an intense and borderline tribal Rite of Spring performed on a stage covered in dirt, and Café Müller, a downright perplexing number in which dancers throw and crash into chairs, fall around like rag dolls (actually, rag-doll choreography repeats throughout Bausch’s work), and wander around the stage in nightgowns, seemingly sleepwalking. Wenders films other bits—some whimsical, some head-scratching—in outdoor locations throughout Wuppertal, Germany, including outside a monorail, on a train itself, and in a field.
Your choreographic orthodoxies aside, it’s hard to deny the performances’ incredible physicality. All of Bausch’s dancers are body-builder muscular, and they throw themselves (sometimes literally) into the works, leaping and spinning and falling with superhuman exaggeration and purpose. But you won’t find out much about them, either. A handful are interviewed, with Wenders choosing to train a camera on them gazing silently while their comments play in voiceover. You rarely get their names, however, and most of what they offer about Bausch or their experiences boils down to platitudes: “I depicted the word with my body,” one says. “Your fragility is also your strength,” Bausch once told another. Or, “Dance for love!” These statements could come from any dancer, on any continent; none gives any insight into Bausch’s particular approach. At least one scene in which two performers take turns spitting at each other speaks more precisely to the choreographer’s tastes. It’s also just weird.