Until I watched Wim Wenders’ 3-D film tribute to the late choreographer Pina Bausch, the best modern dance performance I'd ever seen took place in a pitch-black room behind the stage at the Kitchen. The final section of DD Dorvillier's Nottthing Is Importanttt (2007) unfolds in darkness, and so close to the seats that you can hear the dancers grunt and breathe, feel their footsteps on the wood floor, and, as the piece goes on, smell their sweat drifting over you like a tropical mist. For an art form that so often seems pickled in theory, this felt raw and fresh.
In Pina, which opens in New York on Friday, Wenders pulls off the same trick: He’s turned a seemingly fatal constraint—no live performance, no real space—into a kind of salvation. The movie builds from four major dance works, each staged in a theater and seen in excerpts. (Only half the theater seats were filled; the rest were taken up by 3-D equipment belonging to cinematographer Alain Derobe.) If the filmmakers had left it at that, they would have made something useful—an accurate recording of the work's highlights, and free of what Wenders refers to as the "invisible wall" that exists between film and dance. But Pina does more than mimic the experience of being in the audience. It brings us out of our seats and onto the stage; it allows us to duck between the dancers and hover next to them; and it finds those marbles of empty space that seem to exist only in 3-D close-up. One performer, wearing eyeglasses, turns to the side, and the air between his frames and his cheek rolls up into a bubble. Another looks straight into the camera with despair dancing in her eyes. Several in the background pant and heave. Also, there's sweat.
More lovely are the scenes shot outside the theater. Wenders takes the nattily dressed dancers—suit vests, ball gowns, pocket watches—onto the streets and up in the hills around the industrial city of Wuppertal, Germany. A couple performs a pas de deux at a busy intersection beneath the city's famous Floating Tram. Aboard the monorail, a dancer interprets her morning commute as if she were a 12-ton robot. There's a choreographed escalator ride, some prancing up and down the slopes of a rock quarry, writhing across the tiles of a public swimming pool, skittering through a park with a small dog, and an autumn twirling in the woods with a leaf blower.
In one scene, two of Bausch's collaborators study a scale model of a stage set and talk about how it was designed—and then the diorama comes to life, the piece performed in miniature. It's a joke on the "puppet-theater effect," an artifact of live-action 3-D that can make the cinematic world look like a shoebox. But here it invokes the magic of the choreographer's creation, and sets the stage for the dramatic shifts of perspective that follow. Wenders takes us from full-stage shots, in which the dancers look like moving dolls, to tight-framed portraiture.
If the film drags a bit in the middle, it's on account of Bausch's unexpected death from cancer, two days before shooting was set to begin in 2009. The project—given up at first, then resumed in torment—bears the weight of her memory. Wenders sets off buoyant dance sequences with 2-D footage of Pina smoking a cigarette, Pina in rehearsal, Pina dancing long ago. At other times, members of her company stare solemnly into the camera and reminisce in voiceover about Pina's eyes, about how Pina could stare into their souls, about what Pina used to say about love. Pina, Pina, Pina: The cult of personality surrounding her—which, incidentally, prohibits any reference to her last name—at times makes the film feel embalmed rather than alive.
Pina is nevertheless a triumph, a movie that does more than demolish the invisible wall between film and dance; it breaks the barrier that intervenes, even at a live performance, between seat and stage. I saw one of the pieces chosen for the film, Vollmond, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010, and from where I was sitting—in a budget-wise corner of the balcony—the action was shrunken down and flattened out. It looked like what it was: a bunch of people cavorting in a pool of water, some others playing with chairs, and a couple of guys clambering onto and off of a large rock. (I left during an endless standing ovation, as unmoved as I'd been two years before, while falling asleep at Bausch's Bamboo Blues.) But in the movie version, I got to see it from front-row center, and also from the 10th row stage-left, and from stage-right, and from the stage itself—right next to the boulder and under the sprays of water. Stunts that had seemed frivolous in person—hey, I'm stacking some chairs over here—were now soaked in meaning.
In another of the film's selections, the heart-breaking Café Muller, empty chairs are strewn across the stage, blocking the dancers and getting pushed back and forth in anguish and frustration. It's high melodrama, and a grand example of the Tanztheater style that earned Bausch her obsessive following. But seen up close, all that hammy stage business—crowded sets, people crying, props everywhere—really starts to sizzle, until its insides are on full display. "I thought I knew the piece by heart," Wenders told me after his film premiered at the New York Film Festival this fall. "But filming it in 3-D, and then having that crane that could really move in, or actually be on the stage, I discovered a whole different architecture of the piece than I'd ever seen from the audience."
To make Pina, Wenders had to invent a new medium for dance—a radical, Dionysian form, a Tanzcinema. He also took a step toward a new medium for film. Like Werner Herzog, whose Cave of Forgotten Dreams came out last April, Wenders has produced a stunning work of art-house 3-D, one that stands apart from the mainstream 3-D blockbusters at the mall. "People think it is strictly a fantasy tool owned by the big studios," he said to the Toronto International Stereoscopic Conference last summer, in a passionate keynote address. But the studios "have taken this language, this amazing new medium, and kidnapped it, stolen it, mutilated it beyond recognition." If Hollywood stinkers are killing stereo cinema, then Wenders is trying to save it: "3-D deserves so much better," he proclaimed, with some German angst. "It deserves to be taken seriously."