Out of Frame: Pina

This review originally appeared on DCist on February 3, 2012, and has been edited for clarity.

out-of-frame_pina1.jpg No! Definitely not!

Director Wim Wenders was on vacation in Venice when his girlfriend pointed to a poster for choreographer Pina Bausch and elicited that violent response, according to the Windy City Times. But he surrendered, and encountered Bausch’s work for the first time. The year was 1985, and as Wenders likes to tell interviewers, it was like unto a conversion experience: “I found myself on the edge of my seat, crying like a baby … it was like lightning struck me.”

Pina, Wenders’ gorgeous 3D document of the Tanztheatre Wuppertal, might not leave you in tears, but it may well convert the uninitiated: fans of Wenders who know nothing of the late choreographer; devotees of Bausch unfamiliar with the German’ director’s arthouse favorites Wings of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club; and finally, film skeptics who feel 3D adds nothing but a gimmick to the moviegoing experience.

The film opens with a birds-eye long shot of the theatre where the film’s stage performances were shot. The camera is still. But this establishing shot demonstrates a use of 3D both subtle and evocative, as the depth of foreground trees and traffic signals gently assert themselves in the space of the frame. The shot also recalls the old saw that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. There’s a common retort: of *course* dancing is about architecture. The body moves through and is restricted by space, and expresses itself within the limitations of a stage, an auditorium. Wenders uses 3D to reveal a spatial depth never before seen in dance films — and expands the stage to picture-perfect outdoor locations as well.

This depth is not restricted to the body in motion, the kind of in-your-face tricks that pepper the typical 3D project. Wenders and cinematographer Hélène Louvart, along with 3D pioneer Alain Derobe, present loving closeups of the dancers’ diverse faces. Light plays on the contours of bone structure, and, in some cases, wrinkles, and show an appreciation of the body in all its form and ages that you’ll never see in Hollywood.

The action begins with members of Bausch’s troupe marching in formation on stage, each repeating a series of gestures that represents the cycle of the four seasons. The line moves around a curtain, whose material may be fragile but gives you the first sense of how the film will treat 3D in motion. The various ages of the dancers resonates with the changing seasons of the dance, and this becomes the foundation for a survey of a life’s work. Time passes, the seasons change, our bodies change – and this is how we live and love. We dance.

out-of-frame_pina2.jpgAs well as Wenders depicts this most graceful of visual arts, he also sets up the stagecraft behind it. Bausch’s interpretation of The Rite of Spring makes up the first section of the film, and is introduced not mid-dance but as stagehands prep the floor with a square of dirt. The systematic choreography of these functional gestures set the stage for the expressive choreography of symbolic gestures, as the dancers muddy themselves and rise, nourished by earth. The theme of earth returns like the seasons near the end of the film, on a set that recalls the claustrophobic doorways that mark apartment sets in Rosemarys Baby: sets of doorways on the stage frame action-within action.  A dancer carries a young tree on her back in the distance while on the main stage an older brunette dancer shovels dirt onto a younger blonde, who tries to right herself as her tormentor keeps shoveling. Wenders has never shied from references to pop culture, so it’s apt that this dance of mortality vividly recalls the Looney Tunes classic “The Old Grey Hare,” in which the aging Bugs and Elmer reminisce before Bugs buries his friend and nemesis alive.

Pina will come as a welcome surprise to those who know and love the Wenders of Wings of Desire or The Amercan Friend. The director has captured dance as if he’d been doing it his whole life. His use of 3D reveals a kind of depth and intimacy that would not be possible in a live performance. I regret that I never saw the Pina Bausch’s group perform live, but Wender’s Pina is a terrific approximation.

Pina
Written and directed by Wim Wenders
With Malou Airaudo, Andrey Berezin, Azusa Seyama, Ditta Miranda Jasifi.

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