Philosophy Over Memory

Wim Wenders pays tribute to a modern-dance choreographer

Choreographer Pina Bausch became a major figure in modern dance in the 1970s. Establishing Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, she engaged in intense and constant collaboration with her performers for the development of each piece.

The esteemed director Wim Wenders approached Bausch to work together on a documentary a few years ago. Two days before they were to begin principal photography, Bausch died at the age of 68. She had been diagnosed with cancer only five days earlier. So it was with a heavy heart and without a co-pilot that Wenders made his Oscar-nominated Pina, relying instead on testimony and staged re-creations from Bausch's dancers. What we have is a tribute-as-performance instead of a more-traditional documentary; this is not a biography.

Even though this is a dance-heavy movie, it could not be much further from Dancing With the Stars. Modern, expressionistic dance is not always poetry in motion, and Bausch's Tanztheater brought dramatic elements into the performances as well. It was uncommon to see her dancers speak or sing or laugh or cry. One signature routine is called "Cafe Muller." It appears to be dancers flailing around a stage and knocking over chairs or narrowly avoiding knocking over chairs. It barely resembles "dance" in the traditional sense.

Wenders begins, as you might expect, at the start of a staged production. The curtain doesn't literally rise, but that is what's going on. However, if you're uninitiated, the first 15 minutes can be a long slog: Just what the hell is this dance about?

Before long, Wenders exports several routines off the stage and into the real world, and Pina starts to gain some traction. Between the dances, he interjects comments from members of Bausch's troupe, discussing her philosophies more than personal memories.

The dances themselves are a little uneven. Some—like the appetizer—just go on and on. Then there are a handful of lighthearted routines that are unfortunately brief. They are welcome additions either way, showcasing a side of the art form that is far less expected; longer examples or a couple more of them would have given Pina more balance for an audience less familiar with the subject. What does become clear is how much the company's dancers rely on each other.

Speaking of balance, Wenders' use of 3-D is pretty hit and miss. The technology is still a novelty any way you slice it, because there's still the conscious effect of wearing glasses, and so many films that don't benefit from 3-D in any tangible way still go all-in with it. But it does help the majority of these performances come to life. That can't be said of the dancers' monologues, or even of every dance interlude, but the 3-D is exceptional in a few moments. It still seems like an artistic overreach for a documentary on the whole, however.

The film is nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, and it's likely the best chance Wenders will ever have of winning one. (Germany also submitted the film for consideration in the Best Foreign Language category.) But if Pina tells us anything about the late choreographer or this filmmaker, it's that the work itself is the end result, and that something like an Academy Award—particularly one that could be interpreted as a lifetime-achievement award—is exactly the sort of recognition their unique and challenging artistic statements are better off without.