You don’t need to know much about modern dance to be enraptured by “Pina.” You just need to buy a ticket.
For more than 20 years, German director Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire”) and his compatriot, choreographer Pina Bausch, planned to make a film together to celebrate her work. Then, only five days after a cancer diagnosis, she died — two days before Wenders had planned to start shooting. The sadness of her passing underscores the finished film. Yet it may also be why this is such a joyous, uplifting work — one of the most life-affirming memorials ever caught by camera.
Oscar-nominated for best documentary feature, “Pina” isn’t the kind of movie that usually lands in that category. We never learn much about Bausch — where she was born or went to school, whom she loved, or even how she died. Wenders isn’t interested in those standard documentary building blocks. His is more a portrait of her work and of the young and old dancers whom, as one of them aptly puts it, she used as the colors in the stage paintings she created.
Filmed onstage and in the leafy springtime parks and sleek urban landscape of her troupe’s base city, Wuppertal, “Pina” features lengthy excerpts from four of her well-known Tanztheater pieces.
In “Le Sacre du Printemps,” her company — the men bare-chested, the women in dingy shifts — tumble and circle in a literally earthy mating dance (the stage floor is carpeted with dirt). The piece reflects Bausch’s longtime interest in bodies hurtling toward and away from one another. “Café Müller” also contains extreme elements of courtship as the dancers navigate a stage littered with hard wooden chairs. (Fans of director Pedro Almodóvar will recognize the piece, featured for its metaphoric impact in his “Talk to Her” from 2002.)
Set in a sort of platonic version of a school auditorium, “Kontakthof” has the dancers presenting themselves to the audience as if to an unseen mirror, then breaking into agitated flailings like teenagers at the most mortifying dance ever. In “Vollmond,” they bathe in the light of the moon, then bathe more genuinely in water that floods the stage. The dancers splash and wheel and exult in rainfall in ways that might have made Gene Kelly blush.
Interspersed with these large ensemble pieces, the film showcases individual dancers in solo routines and pas des deux, some quite silly, and intentionally so. Wenders also captures their thoughts and appreciative memories of the artist who has left them, a woman who pulled some of them out of their fears and into the full joy of their bodies.
Bausch, in the film’s older footage, never tries to define her concept of dance, but she suggests that it’s a powerful alternative to the limitation of words. “All you can do is hint at things,” she says. In her work, those things include rage, joy, sadness, delight, silliness, lust and sorrow. One dancer recalls Bausch asking, rhetorically, “What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?”
Let’s not look for an answer, but give Bausch (as the film does) the last words that make such questions moot: “Dance! Dance! Otherwise, we are lost.”
Note: Like his equally unpredictable countryman Werner Herzog in the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Wenders has shot “Pina” in 3D. I wasn’t able to see the movie in that format in time to write this. Luckily for you, you can.
“Pina.” A performance documentary featuring the Pina Bausch Dance Company. Directed by Wim Wenders. In multiple languages with subtitles. Rated PG-13. At AMC Phipps Plaza.