Breathing. When you watch bodies in Wim Wenders’ Pina, you hear and see them breathing. In a movie about dancers—about the work of dancers, their efforts to tell stories, to move audiences, to help them wonder—this is no small thing.
As it remembers Pina Bausch, the choreographer, the movie also explores the relationship between bodies and movies, using 3D in new ways. At first, this relationship might seem simple: dancers from Pina’s Tanztheater Wuppertal appear, they gesture or step, they are framed, and shots are cut together to insinuate or follow movements. But soon Pina is doing something else: it’s breaking up and putting together the gestures and the steps, it’s gazing at faces, it’s not quite keep up. The first dance in the film, Rite of Spring, from 1975 and set to Igor Stravinsky, is startling. Men and women dance in groups, approaching and retreating from each other, enacting the rite of coming together and apart, of violence and attraction.
As they dance, as they move and breathe and sweat, the stage is transformed. As dirt is laid on the floor, bodies become dirty: sex as dance as is work, a process, an adaptation. The dancers continue to move and sweat and breathe, and now come new sounds, scratching and scraping and softening, they move in shafts of light, they recede into shadows. Their efforts are increasingly, insistently visible in the 3D, an illusion of density the film doesn’t press but allows to hover.
For in this moment and what follows, <>Pina engages you subtly, almost slyly. As bodies are redefined, remolded by brown dirt and glistening sweat, close-up and at a distance, you find yourself looking harder, making efforts yourself, to see what you’re hearing. These are no longer only figures on a screen but dancers in space, an illusory space conjured on that flat surface, a space that is unexpectedly deep.
The film manages this trick again and again, as each performance suggests other ways to imagine space, to imagine movement—adjustment, agitation, pursuit and resistance—in it. In each performance, as well as in the interviews with dancers, recalling their encounters with Pina, their changed self-understandings or better, their conversions, Pina considers the interplay of space and mind, as bodies reveal it. One dancer describes her inspiration (“I had to pull myself up by my own hair”), another her insight (“She saw everything, even with her eyes closed”).
More specifically, PIna, which began production shortly after her death in 2009, at age 68, considers how bodies in a movie can reveal movement. In Café Müller, dancers work with tables and chairs, doors and windows (the ideas of doors and windows), entering and exiting, as if they might engineer the space of the café and also, each other.
A small and gradually more emphatic drama begins, as a man (Michael Strecker) enters the café, then arranges the limbs and seeming emotional parts of a couple (Aida Vainieri and Dominique Mercy, one of the company’s artistic directors). Again and again, Strecker manipulates the others’ arms and positions, and again and again, they return to their embrace: as the speed of the rearranging picks up, the effort feels more urgent, the poses sloppier each time, like xerox copies, specificity lost in the repetitions. As this story can’t resolve, another begins on the opposite side of the stage, as a wall becomes a prop, a body collapses and leans and pushes against it. And in another, a man rushes to remove chairs from the path of a woman walking, her eyes closed. “The tiniest detail matters,” a dancer says. “It’s all a language that you can learn to read.”
That language extends into and beyond bodies. One number challenges the very premise of ballet, as a woman stuffs raw meat into her toe shoes (“This is veal”), then dances out into a street between warehouses. In another number, Vollmund (2006), dancers use water, splashing it, running through it, becoming wetter and wetter. In the process they seem to shapeshift, not quite the individuals we see at the start, not quite fluid but also constant, recognizable as they change. “Go in search,” a woman remembers Pina told her. “But that’s all she said. Not what to look for or whether you were on the right path.”
Such searches continue in Pina, for dancers ranging from old to young, speaking multiple languages and bringing any number of experiences, spoken and not. As they seek their paths, and perform those searches, the film invites you to search too, to make use of the space and paths before you. Pina was a “radical explorer,” recalls a colleague. “What are we longing for? Where does all this longing come from?”
Remembering Pina, the film longs for her but also finds her, again and again. As she appears in footage too, footage that is 2D and sometimes black and white, she’s yet part of this process, integral and inspiring still. The film offers dance as a means to traverse and render and make sense of space, to run and jump and fall, to sway and bend and breathe.