UNTIL HER death in 2009, Pina Bausch was arguably the most influential woman in European contemporary dance. Bausch, a lateral-thinking performer and choreographer, fused radical theatre, surrealism and carnal body grammar into what we now call Tanztheater over some 30 years in the biz.
Purists might well argue that watching men shoving chopped onions into girls’ mouths ain’t exactly Swan Lake, but Bausch’s admirers are legion.
Fellow German Wim Wenders, as this laudatory new bio-doc attests, is a diehard Pina fan. The angular performers who surrounded Bausch during life mirror the director’s passion and are keen to provide swooning on-camera testimony to the woman and her art. Their talking-head recollections are here punctuated by recreations from some of Bausch’s seminal 1970s back catalogue, including Café Müller, a piece movie buffs may recognise from the overture of Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. And it’s all in glorious, shiny 3D. Who knew that 3D would become an art-house staple? Arriving hot on the heels of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina demonstrates what a real filmmaker can do with an added dimension. The process is immersive without disappearing; space looks adequately spacey, sudden movement explodes off the screen, peek over your glasses and you’ll see a mirage of labyrinthine layering.
Unhappily, the film is less satisfying than its splendid presentation. The technology, though impressive, simply cannot accurately translate modern choreography into cinema. Partly it’s a dance thing – dance thrives on the ephemeral energies of the live experience; 3D comes close but no cigar. Partly it’s a formal issue: Bausch’s work is too too hard-edged and physically counterintuitive to bring sufficient movement to moving pictures.
The film is an odd tribute that leaves the viewer yearning for the fluidity of classical training. It’s odder still that we emerge from the cinema not knowing anything more of Pina Brausch than we did going in. Two days before Wenders’ shoot was initially due to start, Bausch died suddenly, five days after being diagnosed with cancer.
An elusive presence in an elusive picture, she haunts the finished film, as a shadow from archives and fond memories, yet never seems to occupy centre stage.