There is a scene in Pina, film director Wim Wenders’ new 3D film, when a line of nimble dancers, dressed in evening clothes and assembled in what could pass for a high-school auditorium, turns their heads mid-step. The camera zooms out, and when it zooms in again the dancers have aged half a century. Now young, now old, now young again, they thrust their pelvises and swing their hips in exaggerated sexual heat. What a moment before was an almost primal sexual urge has become its caricature, and the viewer, peering through 3D goggles and feeling close enough to smell these cats in heat, laughs. The protean nature of man in motion is, in the dance theater of Pina Bausch, reason to celebrate.

This scene is footage from a 2009 performance (several performances, actually) of Kontakthof, the dance theater piece by master choreographer Bausch and her dance company, the Tantztheater Wuppertal.

Kontakthof, originally staged in 1979, if it can be said to be about anything, might be called a sort of high school dance for people out of high school. Men and women are set loose in a room and immediately start doing what it is that men and women do when they’re thrown together – they seek a mate. What follows is a combination of grace, mad-dash anguish, slapstick comedy, and even some romance. Bodies in motion – women wrestling with the trains of their dresses, men motioning with their best come hither looks, would-be couples approaching each other with a combination of confidence and terror – are not always what we want them to be. The dancers never veer into the grotesque, though we can clearly see when one man is particularly frustrated at the coquettishness of the woman he is trying to seduce, because he flaps his hands in the air and slaps them against his knees.

Bausch, born in Sollingen, Germany in 1940, studied ballet and modern dance first in Essen, under the legendary Kurt Jooss, and later at Julliard, in New York City. By 1972, she returned to Germany and assumed the role of artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet; she never left. When Bausch died, in 2009, she was in the midst of collaborating on a film about her dance company, now renamed Tantztheater Wuppertal, with celebrated director Wenders, a fellow child of the Vaterland. However, you wouldn’t know any of this from watching the film.

Wenders, whose previous work includes the Road Movie trilogy; Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire; Buena Vista Social Club; and various music videos, was by his own admission “the least likely director to make a dance film” when he first heard of Bausch in 1985. But then he saw her dance. It took a quarter of a century, and a significant advancement in film technology, for his vision of a film to be realized; for years, he mulled over how to capture movement on screen. And then, in 2008, Wenders attended a viewing of the film U2 3D in Cannes. The new technology, which brought depth to the previously two-dimensional screen, turned a light on. He finally knew what to do.

The resulting film is a masterpiece of imagination. Pina follows Tantztheater Wuppertal through live performances of four pieces—Le Sacre du Printemps, Kontakthof, Café Müller, and Vollmond—and also captures each member of the company performing individual pieces, either alone or in duet, that were inspired by Bausch. Interspersed with all of this are tender recollections of “Pina,” as she is called, by her dancers, shot as internal monologues accompanying pensive close-ups of expressive faces.

Truly, this is tantztheater: set designs for the four complete pieces are sometimes elaborate; Vollmond features a lunar crag and a moon storm, with dancers traipsing through rain and flood while executing their moves. Perhaps most striking of all, though, are the settings for the individual moments. All of the non-stage pieces were filmed in Wuppertal, Germany, and this is an industrial city that doesn’t lack for scenery.

There is a wonderfully funny dance set in that city’s floating tramway, and an autumn scene featuring a woman artfully pushing a leaf blower in a Westphalian forest. There is also ecstatic dancing on the lips of a stone quarry, and a love scene with a hippopotamus—all quotations from Bausch’s long career. Bausch was never afraid to be funny. Wenders isn’t, either. What’s interesting is how strongly Wuppertal—whose next-most famous citizen would be the German industrialist and philosopher Friedrich Engels, the partner of a different kind of duo—is the subtext of the film. This is no surprise, considering that much of Wenders’ previous work is so integrally grounded in place. If there is a recurring role in all of Wenders’ films, it is the landscape.

Throughout Wenders’ career, soundtracks have functioned as brilliantly sculpted skeletons that support the more fully attired visual aspect. In Pina, he lets the original music from Bausch’s repertoire speak for itself. Jun Miyake’s enchanting jazz piece “Lillies in the Valley” is the film’s musical spine, while the smoky “Einmal ist Keinmal” sends goosebumps up the arms: a German tango from the 1930s that can be heard during the Kontakthof scene where the dancers go from young to old.

“Once, once is never at all,” sings a voice from pre-war Germany. “It will never return – that lost chance!”[1]

The one thing notably absent from the film: context. Bausch agreed to make the film provided she wouldn’t have to speak about her work. Wenders stayed true to the letter and the spirit of Bausch’s wishes: there is no introduction, no explanation, and no interpretation. What is showcased is her art.

The cinematography is masterful and Wenders’s choice of 3D clearly paid off: you do leave the theater feeling like you’ve just been to the ballet, and not the movies. The artifice behind the art has been back grounded like never before in Wenders’ work, and that alone is an achievement. And, whether you know everything about Bausch’s life or nothing, this film stays with you long after you’ve taken off your 3D glasses and left the theater. You can always ask: what does this symbolize? Bausch and Wenders have a ready answer: It’s up to you.

Pina is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York as well as the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For more information visit or

[1] A special thanks to Rachel Horst for tracking down and translating these lyrics.

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