The strength of Wim Wenders’ documentary “Pina” is its no-narration portrait of the work of groundbreaking German choreographer Pina Bausch, created through viewing dancers in her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, perform four of her most noted works. That’s the difficulty of this documentary as well, which is thought to be the first 3-D art-house film.
Not all local viewers will be able to fully appreciate the technical innovation of “Pina,” nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film is noted for its groundbreaking use of 3-D technology — in essence, solving the problem of how flat a full-bodied art like dance appears on film — yet is only being screened in 2-D at the Broadway Centre Cinemas. (For 3-D, catch a screening at Century 16 Salt Lake, 125 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City.)
Bausch, 69, died abruptly of cancer in 2009, while Wenders (“Wings of Desire,” “The Buena Vista Social Club”) was beginning rehearsals after years of talking with the choreographer about making a film. After her death, company members persuaded the filmmaker to finish this documentary tribute.
In subtitled voiceovers, dancers describe Bausch’s unusual working style, spliced with brief clips of the choreographer in rehearsal, in interviews and in performance. Known to everyone in the company as Pina, she was an artist of few words, who questioned dancers and used their emotions to create seemingly abstract, naturalistic dances.
Viewing this documentary, you’d think Pina was a saint.
“When I was new to Wuppertal and confused about a few things, she simply said: ‘Dance for love,’ ” one young male dancer says.
Another dancer says: “It was as if Pina was whole in every one of us, or the other way around — as if we were a part of her.”
The filmmaker was inspired the first time he watched Pina’s company perform. “People performing who moved differently than I knew and who moved me as I had never been moved before” is how Wenders described the effect on the film’s website, defining Tanztheater’s work by stating what it wasn’t. “Not theater, nor pantomime, nor ballet and not at all opera. Pina is, as you know, the creator of a new art. Dance theater.”
To most Americans, “dance theater” might suggest another reality TV competition. But Bausch’s minimalistic work is like another language, so carefully choreographed, so carefully performed, that the dancers’ movements seem organic rather than rehearsed. At the documentary’s best, it’s as if the audience is spying on a secret world of movement, laden with meaning.
The camera juxtaposes staged performances with startlingly beautiful scenes of dancers performing in and around an elevated tram, on a German streetscape, in nature and on the lip of an open-pit mine.
Outside a concert hall, the dancers move in ways that seem as free and as unusual as the backdrops. The women wear slip dresses or jewel-colored evening dresses, the men in casual pants or in dark suits, their clothing, too, transcending the artifice of stage performance. The camera loves the variety of the dancers’ bodies, ages, sizes, hair styles and expressions, portraying them as physical storytellers rather than dancers.
All of this is complicated to watch, if you’re looking for meaning or narrative. “Pina” is too proud of its avant-garde approach to offer any challenge or context about the choreographer’s life or her dances, which makes this tribute to her seem slow and pretentious. Frustrating, too: What does it mean?
I wanted this documentary’s painterly images to add up to something as emotionally big and freeing as the idea of movement itself. That it doesn’t makes me miss what I could have seen leap off the screen through 3-D glasses.
A beautiful but frustrating tribute to the groundbreaking German choreographer.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; in 3-D at Century 16 Salt Lake, 125 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City
When • Opens Friday.
Rating • NR, but probably PG-13 for sensuality, partial nudity, smoking.
Running time • 103 mins.