Pina a documentary tribute to the late, great German choreographer Pina Bausch, is playing now at the Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St. in Santa Barbara, and anyone interested in filmmaking should see the revolutionary effect that 3-D has on the medium of dance.
But be prepared for some drab moments if “dance theater” is not your cup of tea because the extraneously slow and cerebrally motivated movements that have often earned the label “self-indulgent” do send you into a lull halfway through the film. The upside is that the 3-D allows the audience an unprecedented immersion into the dance world, and in this case, makes some cathartic choreography appear as live as a performance could ever be.
German writer/director Wim Wenders manages to make industrial Wuppertal, Germany’s bleakest town, look reasonably attractive. Much of the documentary takes place at Tanztheater Wuppertal, a purpose-built space for Bausch. Six tip-trucks unload dirt (yes, dirt) onto the Tanztheater stage for Bausch’s popular work, a modern take on the Rite of Spring.
A phalanx of women perform an exulting dance with elbows shunting back into their own ribs, feet stomping sideways and abdomens contracting, revealing a base of Martha Graham technique. Meanwhile, one woman lies on a “blood-red towel,” a more literal interpretation of Rite, if you know what I mean, and the pumping of the lungs and audible heavy-breathing is palpably directed toward the audience in 3-D.
The result is quite spectacular, but later, another famous work of Bausch’s, Cafe Muller, does not transfer as well. Dated choreography happens on and around dozens of chairs and tables. One woman is repeatedly dropped to the floor with a thud so stagnant that you just want the dance to come back.
One has to remember that European dance companies are largely government funded, which gives choreographers the great luxury of creating work that may not have any commercial appeal whatsoever. Considered “serious art” in Bausch’s heyday, the 1970s and ‘80s, modern dance got somewhat stuck in this indulgence.
Wenders’ gets stuck, too, and fails to get to the heart and soul of the artist. We learn nothing of Bausch’s early life, her inspiration, her process or her personal life, and instead the film is a series of dance montages, sometimes comical in retrospect. While the dancers repeatedly mention Bausch’s inconsolable loneliness, we never understand why, and we can only assume that the source of her sad and lonely life came from living in boring, old Wuppertal.
One dancer does explain the questions Bausch asked her dancers over the years; “What are we longing for?” and “Where does this yearning come from?” Perfectly thought-provoking questions, but perhaps that is where the medium lost its way because it is exactly these “longing stares” and “internally yearning gestures” that have made this work inaccessible to many audiences. A new generation of choreographers has worked to stamp out the misconception that “dance theater” is all slow and cerebral movements that are “longing” to be “understood.”
Thankfully this period in modern dance has largely ended (though clearly not in Wuppertal) and also has been satirized by a new generation with the likes of “Modern Dance Is Not A Dirty Word,” choreographed by Australian former Chunky Move Dance Company Director Gideon Obarzanek.
Wenders, whose work has been staggeringly diverse, from the brilliant “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire” to the “Buena Vista Social Club,” has taken 3-D, a shock and thrill effect, and turned it into a kind of visceral magnifying glass that may elevate dance on film to its rightful place in the entertainment chronicles. One can now imagine films such as Chicago and Catherine Zeta-Jones spinning toward you with a 3-D murderous intent, and the strength of not only her voice but the power of her kick in the flesh.
Pina plays daily at 2:15 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre.