Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/16/12 02:30:50

"Dozens of beautiful dances, one amazing choreographer."
5 stars (Awesome)

Many in the audience for this advance screening of "Pina" were either dance enthusiasts or dancers themselves, and they probably appreciated many details more than I did, especially where performance was concerned. And yet, I'll hazard that those who are attracted by an eye-popping trailer, technical curiosity, or just finding that it's the only movie that starts in the next twenty minutes will in many cases be just as impressed. One doesn't need to know the details to see something beautiful and difficult and recognize it as such, although I have no doubt that it gives flavor to the experience.

The audience will not learn a lot about who Pina Bauch was, or her history. The dedication at the beginning and use of the past tense indicates that she died recently, and it's easy to pick up from context that, though she seldom danced herself toward the end of her life, she was a brilliant and innovative choreographer. What we hear from interview subjects makes her sound, if anything, more enigmatic. What director Wim Wenders, the members of Pina's company, and other dancers do is present her work - pieces large and small that are presented on stage, in a rehearsal hall, or on location.

And... wow. There are at least a dozen different numbers presented in whole or in part, and they are pretty amazing. Even if the viewer doesn't know much about dance, the first major sequence covers the stage in dirt to emphasize what sort of hard, sweaty work it can be, while later bits will sometimes allow the audience to think that a bit is kind of boring or pretentiously arty before dropping a bit that astounds with the sheer level of precise, strong athleticism it requires. One later number floods a part of the stage with water, and I couldn't help but think, even while admiring the beauty of the action, that if I were jumping around that barefoot, I would inevitably slip and wipe half the company out. Even setting aside the physical difficulty, the numbers are beautiful, as often filled with whimsy as drama.

For many, seeing them in this movie will likely be as close as they get to seeing these performances in person, not just because few cities have dance troupes as accomplished as Bauch's. Wenders and cinematographer Hélène Louvart shoot the picture in 3D and make some of the best use of the format that anybody has, often setting their cameras up to capture the stage exactly, mimicking the sense of being in the audience at a performance in all three dimensions. It's not just where they place the camera that creates the feeling of being in the audience, though - they manage to keep everything in focus, which means one's eyes are not necessarily guided to one part of the screen. Numbers often will have multiple things going on at different depths, and just as at a live performance, the viewer must choose how much attention to give each dancer, especially if circumstance or preference finds you close to the front as it did for me.

Don't think that Pina is just a static recreation of watching a stage performance, though - the camera angle changes to bring the audience closer to the action than even a front-row seat, though not so often to suggest performances being assembled from the best bits of multiple takes. One piece would not work on the stage as presented because it involves repeatedly cutting from one set of dancers to another. The dance is also often liberated from the stage and studio to take place on the streets or other public places, with Wenders and Louvart seeming to have particular fun presenting a long escalator, the edge of a sand pit, and Wuppertal's suspended trolleys in 3D.

Wenders also make an interesting choice or two in how he presents Pina and the other dancers to the audience outside of performance. There's a nifty use of special effects as two members of the troupe discuss Pina's "Café Müller" piece while it plays out within a dollhouse, for instance. What would be traditional talking-head interviews are instead presented as voice-overs to the dancers staring ahead, lost in thought; it's a bit of a trick to suggest that these are inner thoughts rather than reactions to questions, but it works, with the different languages reinforcing the idea that we are seeing not just a local company, but some of the best in the world. These moments generally happen alongside the dancer appearing in a piece, and it's intriguing to see that, in a business that is almost necessarily youth-obsessed, there are many spots for older dancers here, though I'm not sure whether this is how the pieces were conceived or if it's a case of allowing the people Pina worked with over her long career moments in the spotlight.

One other potentially interesting side-effect of shooting this in 3D: It will likely have this fine-arts documentary by a German director playing in the mainstream theaters that have the projectors to show it as well as the smaller boutique houses that might be its usual home, and potentially easier to discover for those who might not otherwise see the likes of it. I hope that turns out to be the case, because this is one of the best movies for that - not a lecture about what you should appreciate, or a lot of biographical details, but a demonstration of how something one might not give a lot of thought can be pretty amazing.

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