I admire the hell out of dancers. They’re athletes and artists. They must train their bodies to the nth degree and remember complex choreography while still delivering the emotion of a performance, usually without the benefit of words. In his 3D documentary Pina, Wim Wenders attempts to take us deep into the artistry of modern dance and a company’s deep love for their fallen leader Pina Bausch. There’s just one problem: I don’t speak modern dance.
Going into Pina, I thought I would be getting a documentary that looked at a dance company and how they were dealing with the loss of their beloved director. Technically, I got that. But not in the way I expected and not in a way that worked for me. There is no easing the uninitiated into Pina. There’s no introduction to the daily life of a dance company, a wealth of archival footage of Pina or talking head interviews, and certainly no explanation or history of the artform. If you don’t understand modern dance and you see Pina, you’re kind of screwed. There’s only so much movement you can appreciate before you become frustrated with the inability to decipher what’s being expressed. That frustration grows deeper when the film’s thesis is that dance can communicate what words cannot. After seeing Pina, I seriously beg to differ.
Wenders fails at conveying the art of dance to non-aficionados, but he does a wonderful job of blending theater with cinema. It’s tough to write 3D off completely when it’s used like this. The technology is first used to emulate the experience of sitting in a theater audience and looking down on the performers. Then Wenders takes the performers out of the theater and into the world, delivering on Shakespeare’s old adage (or technically Jaques’ adage in As You Like It), “All the world’s a stage.” Since the 3D perspective helps put us in the auditorium, when it’s brought out into the open, the visuals remind us of that perspective. It doesn’t hurt that Wenders wisely keeps the camera static and leaves all the movement to the dancers.
But for all of Pina‘s visual splendor, there cannot be captivation without communication. There are so many dances in the film and I didn’t even know whether Pina had choreographed them all or if the dancers had come up with the dances themselves as their way of paying respect. Furthermore, for a movie meant to celebrate Pina, I never understood who she was other than someone who really connected to her company. It turns the movie into a eulogy and as a viewer I felt like I was attending a sumptuous funeral for someone I didn’t know. Gorgeous but muddled and ultimately tiresome, Pina is beautiful gibberish.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: