Movie Review: Pina: A Filmmaker’s Homage to the Sustaining Power of a Dancer

German director Wim Wender’s new movie, Pina, isn’t so much a documentary about the German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausche, as it is an attempt to reconcile two artistic languages – film and dance – in a way that allows each to show us something new about the other. To this end, Wenders employs 3D, the first to use it in a major documentary project since his New German Cinema cohort, Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). The technology is intended to capture Pina’s work by immersing us. It is not the experience of an audience watching a performance, but that of a dancer intimately involved in the work.

Wenders says the focus of his film is to open new audiences up to the power dance in a way similar to how he himself was inadvertently exposed to the art form via Pina Bausche at the behest of his girlfriend. Quiet and sometimes solemn, the movie consists of a series of long performance sequences, interrupted only by occasional moments of reflection on the part of Pina’s dancers. The choreographer was known for her theatrical style, which meshed theater with movement, creating works that are sharply emotional, explicitly rendered, and full of symbolic resonance. It is a gregarious style, which makes it perfectly suited as a gateway for non-dance lovers into the exhilarating power of the art form.

In terms of style, Wenders seems to be taking his cues from Spanish director Carlos Saura, whose films take advantage of the camera’s penchant for fluidity of space to create new insights into dance by removing it from the theater. Pina features movements in glass houses, city streets, tram platforms, and deserted landscapes. The locations are not merely visually novel, the help frame and inform the piece at hand, while supporting a pervading mood that is quiet, odd, and captivating.

As a documentary, however, Pina is a strange kind of biography, one whose subject makes occasional appearances only through stock footage or quotes, but whose fingerprints are everywhere on the film. Pina is present mainly through the resonating impact she has had on her students. The dancers in Pina are occasionally asked to tell us about their relationship with their mentor – in words and in dance – but they end up telling more about themselves. Pina, then, is a biography of a troupe, a testimony of artistic love shared between student and teacher, whose shadow takes on almost messianic proportions at times.

This deep feeling for the choreographer, which is shared by the filmmaker, is intimately bound-up in a mood of mourning that hangs over Wender’s movie. Pina was supposed to be a collaboration between Pina and Wenders, but the choreographer died only days before the shoot was supposed to start. What Pina becomes, then, is something none of the movie’s participants would have wished for, but the film is nonetheless all the more powerful for it. It is a film that both captures and participates in the use of art as a means of coping with loss and pain. It is a strange serendipity that so much of Pina’s work deals precisely with this kind of struggle, the heart at war and in love with the beauty and limitations of the body. It doesn’t feel right to say that Pina is a movie that you watch or enjoy. Rather, this movie is something closer to the experience of eating, offering necessary sustenance.

Pina opens tomorrow at the Angelika Dallas in 2D and at Cinemark West Plano in 3D.