Twenty-five years ago, Wim Wenders’ girlfriend dragged him to a performance by Tanztheater Wuppertal, the modern dance company led by Pina Bausch. “I tried to avoid it,” the German filmmaker recalled. “Dance was not for me.... Finally I went along, expecting a boring evening.”
It turned out to be a life-changing experience. “I have seen other dance since then, but I’ve never been touched by anything as much as Pina’s work,” Wenders said in a recent interview in West Hollywood. He eventually struck up a friendship with the choreographer, and together they planned to make a documentary about the company.
More than 20 years in the making, “Pina,” which opens Jan. 14 in L.A., captures Bausch’s intense, confrontational style of dance through a selection of her works filmed onstage and outdoors. The movie uses 3-D technology to create a sense of spatial depth and viewer immersion that is absent in traditional dance documentaries.
The film samples some of the late choreographer’s most celebrated ensemble pieces, including “The Rite of Spring,” “Cafe Muller,” “Kontakthof” and the water-themed “Vollmond,” as well as a number of her more intimate works. They were shot in and around Wuppertal, the rather drab, industrial city in western Germany where Bausch worked for most of her career.
Two years after her death in 2009, Bausch remains a towering figure in modern dance. Born Josephine Bausch in 1940 in Solingen, Germany, she began her career working with the New American Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She returned to Germany and founded Tanztheater — literally “dance theater” — in 1973. Her works were often highly theatrical and physically demanding, sometimes pitting dancers against one another in ferocious confrontations. Most critics admired her work, but she had detractors too. Dance critic Arlene Croce once described Bausch as a “theatre terrorist” and her style as the “pornography of pain.”
Since debuting in February at the Berlin Film Festival, “Pina” has received critical praise for its innovative application of 3-D. The documentary is Germany’s official Academy Award submission in the foreign-language film category, and it’s also on the shortlist for the documentary feature award. No film has ever received nominations in both categories, according to an academy spokeswoman.
“Pina” follows the release earlier this year of the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which used 3-D technology to explore the ancient Chauvet cave in France. It was directed by Werner Herzog, who like Wenders, was a key filmmaker of the German New Wave period in the 1970s.
The movies are part of a nascent wave of 3-D documentaries to hit the market, encompassing subjects as diverse as pop music (“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”) to the historical epic (“Fields of Valor: The Civil War,” a documentary miniseries airing this month on 3net, a 3-D channel backed by Imax, Sony and Discovery.)
For Wenders, 66, “Pina” marks his biggest career success since his 1999 documentary “Buena Vista Social Club.” The director — whose films include “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire” — said his experience working with 3-D proved so rewarding that he plans to use it in future projects.
“Pina” took close to two decades to get off the ground, mostly because Wenders had trouble finding the right approach. “I just didn’t know how to do it,” the director said, noting that digital 3-D had not yet emerged into the mainstream. “There needed to be a new language to film dance. Pina was patient and said, ‘Wim, one day you will find out.’” Years passed and the project languished.
In 2007, Wenders saw the concert movie “U2 3D” at the Cannes Film Festival. “From the first shot I knew this was the answer to our 20 years of hesitation. This was the language that was made for it,” he said.
But tests revealed that 3-D had problems when it came to capturing dance. Wenders worked with Alain Derobe, a pioneer in the field of stereoscopy, which is the technique behind 3-D moviemaking. Early screen tests showed “depth and space beautifully, but movement was a disaster,” recalled Wenders. “Any fast movement in our first tests was jerky and not pleasant at all. My assistant moved his arms in front of the camera, and it looked like an Indian goddess.”
Eventually, the crew learned the right combination of shutter speed and lenses, but they still had to avoid certain things, like lateral pans that resulted in blurred images.
The film’s biggest setback came in June 2009 when, just days before principal photography was scheduled to begin, Bausch died at 68 from cancer that had been diagnosed less than a week earlier. Wenders pulled the plug on the production. “We were all in a state of shock,” he recalled. When he attended a memorial two months later, he decided to relaunch the film as a way to “ground this company again and together do something for Pina.”
Julie Shanahan, a member of Tanztheater Wuppertal for 24 years, said making the movie so soon after Bausch’s death was “a bit like a salvation. It gave us something to concentrate on.” Filming interior scenes began in October 2009 and lasted a month. Shanahan said the presence of the cameras onstage was overwhelming at first, but the intimacy soon felt integral to the process. “It was what Pina’s work was all about,” she said.
Wenders closed the shoot and waited until the following spring to take his cameras outside to film several solos and duets. The outdoor scenes were derived from Bausch’s method of asking her dancers personal questions and having them respond through dance. One scene shows a father and daughter — Dominique and Thusnelda Mercy, both members of the company — taking turns carrying each other on their backs. The piece came from Bausch’s inquiry into their familial and professional relationships.
Some critics have faulted the documentary for its lack of biographical depth. The film contains only brief archival footage of Bausch and virtually no background information on her life. Wenders said Bausch didn’t want the film to be about her, only her dancers. “After her death, I respected that,” he explained. “We had to show a little bit of course. People would have been unhappy if they didn’t see Pina herself. But it’s a very small part of the film.”
Since Bausch’s death, the company has continued to tour internationally, and performed this month in Berkeley and Ottawa. (Its most recent L.A. appearance was in 2007 as part of UCLA Live.) It will perform a series of pieces at the Cultural Olympiad in London this summer.
Dominique Mercy, who joined Tanztheater in 1973, has assumed the position of artistic director along with Robert Sturm. Mercy said the company is “still in a fragile situation even though we have the luck to keep going.” The company recently lost one of its main venues due to the city of Wuppertal’s budgetary problems and now must share the city’s opera house with other groups. “We’re starting our third season without Pina, and things take time to settle,” said Mercy.
Wenders said his experience working on “Pina” has inspired him to start planning a new documentary that will bring 3-D to the world of architecture. He said the new movie will focus on a single architect but declined to say who it is. “Architecture is all about spaces, and moving through spaces. 3-D is perfect for that,” he said.