Dance Review: Dystopian Dancing — Pina, a 3-D documentary

As a dancer, Pina Bausch was the presiding spirit of speechlessness. She had the macabre body of an anorexic, but her matchstick arms communicated entire inner worlds

Pina, a 3-D documentary by Wim Wenders. In select U.S. theaters now, opening in Boston at the AMC Boston Common January 20, 2012. 

By Debra Cash. 

What happens when a celebration is transformed, by awful necessity, into a memorial? 

A scene from PINA, a documentary directed by Wim Wenders

German filmmaker Wim Wenders had been discussing a collaborative project with his friend, choreographer Pina Bausch, for 20 years. She regularly teased him about how procrastination and competing offers were burying his good intentions. It was one of those “one day we’ll do it” dreams—we all have them—that never seemed to get off the ground. 

Then, in 2007, Wenders caught a screening of the 3-D concert film made by the rock band U2. Wenders would later say that he was elated. Finally, here were the tools he felt he needed to do justice to Bausch’s work. The two artists mapped out a proposed repertory and scouted for locations—German theaters, windowed galleries, urban traffic circles shadowed by monorail lines, the edge of an open pit with a long view to the horizon—and scheduled a shoot featuring the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal, which Bausch had led since 1973. 

Just two days before the rehearsal shoot, the 68-year-old Bausch was told by her doctors she had cancer. Five days later, she was dead. Wenders’s first impulse was to scrap the project until, encouraged by her family and her dancers, he reversed his decision. Dance and film lovers alike can be glad he did. 

Pina depicts not merely the repertory of one of Europe’s most important dance artists but a provocative, influential, and still-controversial sensibility. Standing at the crossroads of “raw,” lived experience and Bausch’s artful exhibitionism, Wenders has been able to expose how Bausch transmuted soil, water, and the sweat of both young and aging bodies into a series of unrelenting metaphors for desire, despair, and most often, the type of loss that renders a human being shell-shocked. 

“There are moments,” Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, “when, whatever the posture of the body, the soul is on its knees.” Pina Bausch’s dance articulates its dystopian language from that spiritually abject position. To me, her expressionism carries within it the erotics of the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, clinical in its voyeuristic empiricism while defaulting to passivity in the face of molestation and social demands. 

As a dancer, Pina Bausch was the presiding spirit of speechlessness. She had the macabre body of an anorexic, but her matchstick arms communicated entire inner worlds. Café Muller, the bleak 1978 work that takes center stage in Wender’s documentary, is a case in point. Some critics have asserted that Café Muller is a meditation on Bausch’s childhood: her parents ran a restaurant attached to a small hotel, and as a girl, Pina used to sit under the tables spying on the customers and, occasionally, entertaining them. If you think you’ve seen Café Muller before, you’re probably right. Excerpts were used in Pedro Almoldovar’s Talk to Her (2002), and the choreography has spawned many imitations, especially among performance artists with a taste for European pessimism. 

Wenders has taken the opportunity to blend archival footage of Bausch’s own performance in Café Muller with vibrant performances by members of her troupe. She dances with her eyes closed as a man rushes to knock chairs and tables out of her path. In the film’s context, Bausch’s sleepwalking, set to Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”—“when I am laid to rest in earth/may my soul create/no trouble in thy breast”–-truly seems to rise from beyond the grave. 

A scene from PINA

The dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal are presented in heroic headshots, each allotted one or two pithy comments spoken in multilingual (and of course subtitled) voiceovers like tantalizing thought balloons. Many of these dancers had worked with her for decades, and one identifies herself as the daughter of two others. Their reverence gets to be a little much, but it’s nice to know that Bausch would, for instance, instruct a gifted but shy dancer to “get crazier.” 

Frustratingly, these artists are not identified by name except inadvertently when they refer to one another. You have to go to the website to follow up. Frederick Wiseman made the same misstep in his beautiful 2009 Paris Opera documentary, La Danse: the dancers were reduced to cogs in the purpose of larger organizations and productions. Some Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers may have indeed felt they were the paint for Bausch’s hallucinatory visions, but it’s disrespectful to them—and for that matter, to the historical record—to let them dissolve into the larger canvas. 

Nonetheless, there is something accurate about their anonymity. Wenders films the dancers watching a film of her—cigarette between her fingers, laughing more often than you’d expect—and we intuit that these bereft men and women have permanently absorbed Bausch’s presence into their very cells. It’s another instance of the bravura, 3-D gesture that opens Pina, where the dancers move in lanes divided by a stage scrim and her face joins them in ghostly overlay. 

During the upcoming awards season, Pina will no doubt gather a shelf of awards for its technological achievement, which included the use of prototype rigs and special monitors optimized to support 3D cameras. The technical decisions make artistic sense. Rite of Spring (1975) is shot from within the action, replicating the point of view of one dancer looking at another, so that when the “chosen maiden” (Ruth Amarante) appears in a supplicating closeup, she is begging us as well as Audrey Berezin, the impassive man who faces her onstage. 

The dancers in Pina seem aware this film will be the definitive set of performances of these works, and their dancing is uniformly exhilarating. Repertory, including sequences from a multi-generational version of Bausch’s Kontakthof featuring teenagers and senior citizens as well as the company and of Vollmond, where dancers leap from a huge boulder to slosh across a wet stage, are intercut with solos and duets the dancers choreographed for themselves as modest testimonials. I wish it had been easier to tell which, if any, of these had been based on choreographic quotes, but the scholars will sort that out. In the meantime, we get to see beautiful dancing in unexpected places. Humor, like the sight of Dominique Mercy in a tutu rolled along a dark tunnel on a mine cart, breaks up Pina’s otherwise dire mood. 

The final moments of PINA, inspired by the dance of death in Ingmar Bergman

In the closing moments of his film, Wim Wenders restages Ingmar Bergman’s famous dance of death from The Seventh Seal. The dancers, in fancy dress, parade across a ridge, smiling, performing a series of simple arm movements that cycle through references to each of the four seasons. The year has turned; the dancers disappear. And then, the empty stage is filled with a black and white film clip of Pina Bausch. Her arms and torso melt into a single sorrowing, gorgeous ribbon. Then she rises, looks at the camera, and waves goodbye. 

Debra Cash, a founding contributor to the Arts Fuse now serving on its Board, is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance and a longtime member of the Authors Guild.

C 2011 Debra Cash


  1. michael on December 27, 2011 at 9:48 am

    I took 14 college-age dance majors to see a screening of Pina in Paris last June and it was one of the most transformative times I have ever had at the movies. I often found myself choking back tears during particularly joyful or poignant dance sequences or interviews with the dancers. The majesty of the 3-D dance experience realized by Wenders is something truly extraordinary to behold. It’s more than just a “gift for Pina” (Wenders’s words), but indeed a gift to documentary cinema.

  2. Karen KLein on December 27, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for this fine review. I can’t wait to see the film. Your use of the Victor Hugo quotation was perfect in this context.

  3. Akos Szilvasi on December 28, 2011 at 7:55 am

    I heard about this film a long time ago an finally I saw it on a flight to Europe last fall. Right away I ordered the DVD (not 3D) from England and showed it to may of our friends. I can’t wait to see this superb tribute to Pina Bausch in its 3D version (my first 3D experience ever!).

    If someone is interested you can buy Cafe Muller and Kontakthof from the British Amazon. “Dancing Dreams” (about the remake of Kontakhof with teenagers) is available in the US.

  4. Karen KLein on January 14, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Now I have seen this extraordinary film and appreciate even more the astute and insightful review Debra Cash has given it. Her comparison of Bausch’s
    choreography to Egon Schiele’s drawings/paintings is spot-on, and her use of the phrase “spiritually abject position” helped me understand what is often a
    very difficult film to watch.

  5. Lynn Modell on January 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I purchased the dvd to show my high school dance students in December.
    Most loved it. Some were disturbed by the thinness of the women. One commented ‘they all look like Pina.’ All agreed they had never seen any dance like this before and they found Bausch’s choreography compelling and moving. I’m looking forward to seeing PINA in 3D.

  6. Tim Jackson on February 4, 2012 at 1:34 am

    Bausch’s dance “articulates its dystopian language from that spiritually abject position”? I enjoy the Egon Schiele comparison, but see Bausch as enormously affirmative. Age, experience, intuition, spontaneity, and the use of space, expand dance into something greater. It’s romantic the way Pollack was romantic; she uses an indefinable vocabulary of strokes, gestures, colors, rhythms that echo the natural world and the disorder of our emotional lives.

    The achievement of this brilliant film is to set Bausch’s unique ideas into natural, theatrical, architectural, and urban spaces employing new technology with a genius sense of camera motion and editing. The music goes from Rite of Spring to modern things I’ve never heard. Wenders personalizes the dancers, offering us the unique architecture of each face in close up while hearing them in voice over, which gives a nice creative and spiritual insight into the work. As for the set pieces, every motion, each dancers body, experience, as well as age seems affirmed in movement. It is a profound use of 3-D. I’m only half kidding when I say that this is why 3-D was invented.

    I saw Bausch several times in NY through the decades. The last time was at the Cherry Lane Theater for her interpretation of the Garden of Earthly Delights. Bausch did Bosch. It was breathtaking. With such an untimely and premature loss, I give the highest kudos to Win Wenders for this stunning accomplishment.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts