It was 1973 when German choreographer Pina Bausch became the artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet, where she would go on to transform the company with her radical approach to dance theater. One year prior, director Wim Wenders began making a name for himself stateside when his sophomore feature The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick played at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films. Twelve years later, their respective success was on the rise: in 1984 Bausch had her New York premiere at BAM (where she presented such seminalworks as Café Müller and The Rite of Spring), while Wenders won the coveted Palme d’Or for his masterpiece Paris, Texas. The following year, Wenders experienced Bausch’s work for himself—and when he did, he knew it would change his life.

Wenders immediately arranged to meet Bausch for coffee and told her he wanted to collaborate. But it wasn’t until 2009, more than twenty years and myriad projects later, that Wenders and Bausch were finally in preproduction on a film about her life and work. Before they even began shooting, Bausch died suddenly and Wenders was left to complete the film in her absence—but now as both a celebration of her work and a eulogy for those who loved her. Premiering in 2011 at the Berlin International Film Festival, Pina stunned audiences with its innovative and sensuous use of 3D. And this month, Bausch will come back to life at BAM—three decades after her work’s first New York appearance—when Pina screens as part of their expansive series, “3D in the 21st Century.” 

Now regarded as a pioneer of avant-garde dance, Bausch garnered international acclaim for her groundbreaking experimental choreography. Her poetic and sensory dances stemmed from her desire to evoke a strong emotional response in her viewer—she was not interested in “how people move,” but, “what moves them.” As devoted to her troupe of dancers as they were to her, Bausch often created pieces through exercises with them, based on their own memories, associations, and yearnings. Incorporating all elements of theater in her work, her elaborate production design also brought the natural world onto the stage (rocks and water in Vollmond, soil in The Rite of Spring, flowers in Nelken, etc). Yet through her choreography, she explored a pointed minimalism by creating her own language through movement, allowing her dancers and herself to express finding new ways to explore love and loss and the eternal division between the sexes. The severe emotion and passionate energy of her work, whether it was erotic, violent, or melancholy, was infectious.

The first time Wenders saw Bausch’s Café Müller performed, he found himself  “weeping uncontrollably, sitting on the edge of my chair,” and, “completely in the grip of what was happening on stage.” He said that, “In forty minutes, Pina showed me more about men and women than the history of cinema without a single word.” Considering Wenders had just made Paris, Texas—a film whose dramatic force lies in the power of gesture and silence—it’s no wonder he was so immediately riveted by it. As in Bausch’s Café Müller, the characters in Wenders’ film serve as vehicles for his own existential questions about the pains of love and the constraints of communication between men and women. Even the film’s climax involves characters able to hear one another but unable to break through the barrier between them, both physically and metaphorically. His next feature, Wings of Desire, would again explore a similar theme, as the angels in the film can hear and see the world of the mortals but must give up their immortality to interact with them. Wenders was clearly working through something personally and artistically, and Bausch’s work is at its best when we can feel an emotional echo of our own lives upon the stage.

It two decades for Wenders to discover that 3D was the proper cinematic format to bring her work to the screen, but when the technology was available, he embraced it wholeheartedly. Using multiple cameras, three different lens, and a telescopic crane stationed in the audience, Wenders was able to capture Bausch’s work from all angles, getting “in the middle” of the performance, “no longer on the outside looking in.” Filming the on-stage performances live, Wenders and his crew planned out exactly where the cameras would be at any moment, making us present alongside the dancers. “At any given moment something can go wrong, at any given moment something can be better than ever before, and it is the life presence that makes it so contagious and overwhelming,” said Wenders. Presenting the film in this medium not only gives us back the intoxicating thrill of live performance but allows us to inhabit a living, breathing work of art from the inside out.

Pina is composed like a collage of artifacts, bound together by the memories of those who witnessed her exquisite talent. Through archival interviews and rehearsal footage of Bausch, dubbed moving portraits of her dancers, and recreations of her work, Wenders animates the people and places of Bausch’s life. He mounts her choreography both on the stage as well as in everyday spaces. Just as Bausch brought the elements of nature into the theater, Pina does the opposite, allowing ordinary settings, such as the Wuppertal Suspended Monorail, to be elevated to the extraordinary. In these sequences we see different variations on Bausch’s Kontakthof interspersed throughout the film—restaged everywhere from forests and isolated industrial spaces to busy street corners and train cars. All centering around Wuppertal, these are the locations Bausch came across everyday. By moving the choreography from its original setting, Wenders provides us with a glimpse of the world through Bausch’s eyes. We gain a deeper insight into where she took her inspiration and how her work can translate beyond the stage. 

But with Café Müller and The Rite of Spring, Wenders remains faithful to their original staging. When we watch The Rite of Spring—a carnal endurance test in which the stage is covered in peat—Wenders allows us to observe the performance from various perspectives of the stage. He cuts from the back of the audience to close up on a dancer lying on the soil to an angular bird’s eye view of the troupe moving in unison to a shot from the ground up. Even without the added element of 3D, Wenders gives the dance depth by allowing us to see the entirety of the stage. It provides a completely different experience than seeing the dance performed live, and allows us to enjoy the theatricality of her work in way that does justice to the fine detail of her choreography.

When Bausch died unexpectedly, Wenders knew that, “Making a film for Pina instead of with Pina seemed like an important way for all of us, for the dancers even more so than me, to fill that loss and deal with the hole in their lives.” In Bausch’s Season’s March—which appears in both the beginning, middle, and end of the film—her troupe of dancers, clad in evening gowns and suits, walk in a line, gesturing their bodies in unison. The movement may not be elaborate, but we watch as the characters of her life travel in a cortege to end the film and to say goodbye to Bausch. Wenders said that making Pina after her death was “even more important for the living than the dead”: what we see on screen is a healing process, an homage that both resurrects her through our 3D perception and then lets her go off into the ether. The final moment of the film comes back to the theater as a film of Bausch dancing alone is projected onto the stage. By keeping the camera’s lens at a distance, Wenders releases us from the film’s tight embrace, breaking its spell and casting us back into the world of the living.

 MUBI