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Pina, the 3D documentary by Wim Wenders on the work of famed German choreographer Pina Bausch, opens today in Washington. Film critic Tricia Olszewski reviewed the movie in this week’s City Paper. My two-word dance-writer take? See it.
The film—which has been nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature—offers little other than dancing, both as part of long, evening-length pieces that take place on stages, as well as isolated solos and duets with backdrops of abandoned factories and highway medians. But the dancing is stunning, to say the least. My companion and I were busy chomping popcorn and chitchatting as the lights dimmed at a recent screening, but the moment images appeared on screen, we froze, utterly and immediately drawn to the movement in front of us. Neither of us relaxed for a good half -hour: It’s that compelling, in a way nondance fans might not believe possible until they see it.
The 3D element is part of it. Though the effect can, at times, be garish and artificial, it mostly succeeds in pulling the observer into the middle of the action, rather than viewing everything from afar like in a darkened performance space.
But the real hero is the choreography itself. Bausch, who died in 2009, founded a seminal dance style known as Tanztheater, which uses unconventional and often absurd movement to convey emotion, and incorporated it in the works she created over a long career for her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. The film highlights four key pieces. It opens with Rite of Spring, a dark story of community and sacrifice set to Stravinsky’s score and danced on dirt—yes, inches of loamy brown stuff that increasingly covers the performers’ sweaty bodies. Pounding with overt sexuality and an almost tangible sense of tension, the piece is about as powerful as they come.
The other works are Café Muller, a spare, abstract tale of longing and lack of connection; Kontakthof, which is set in a dance hall and populated by dancers in cocktail outfits; and Vollmond, which features a pool of water onstage, together with a massive boulder that takes up a quarter of the space.
Part of what makes the dances so moving is how each evokes a closed world that the audience happens to be privy to. But it’s the movement itself—laden with meaning while simultaneously almost offhandedly personal—that gives Bausch’s pieces, and the film, potency.
Not that it’s a flawless creation. Throughout the movie, Wenders has scattered interviews with the dancers talking about their impressions of Bausch. Their words are largely pointless: Just about no one has anything revealing to say about her. In fact, it’s easy to walk out of the theater and feel like you learned nothing about the legendary dancemaker—certainly not why she chose the themes she did or where her choreographic process came from.
But some of those answers are visible in the dancing, if nowhere else. Male/female conflicts crop up over and over, with the women repeatedly depicted as powerful, complicated, magnetic creatures whom the men orbit around but fail to understand. Many of her earlier pieces are set in early 1950s Germany, and one imagines that an adolescent Bausch was personally affected by the manners and stifled ambitions of that era.
What’s fascinating, too, is how her style appears to have changed over time, illustrating one of those truisms in art: Remaining iconoclastic is tough in the face of success. While the other three pieces were created in the 1970s, Vollmond was made in 2006, and it shows. The dancing is downright virtuosic—surely the result of Bausch being able to hire the very best movers in the field at that point in her career—but that sense of truth conveyed through stylized but simple gesture and posture is gone. Or if it’s there, it’s muddied by too much activity.
In the movie, one of the more enigmatic additions is a comment by Bausch about how moving with eyes closed and cast downward, versus looking directly out through closed lids, results in a radically different performance quality. It’s that exploration of the nuanced relationship between movement and emotion that made Bausch initially famous, and seems to have gotten lost later in her career.
But no matter. The dancing is luscious and glorious, some of the very best in the world. It will make you think, and it will move you.
Pina in 3D opens today at Georgetown’s AMC Loews cinema. Showtimes are 2 , 4:40, 7:30, and 10:10 p.m.