"You just have to get crazier" were the words of advice mighty choreographer Pina Bausch once gave to one of her dancers, who fondly recalls the moment in Wim Wenders's soaring 3-D tribute to the woman who revolutionized the art with her tanztheater (dance theater) — and who died unexpectedly right before shooting on the project began in 2009. Wenders, a friend and fan of Bausch's since 1985, immediately shut down the production, which now seemed unimaginable without her guidance. But her ensemble members persuaded him to proceed; their brief, mostly alfresco solo and duet performances are interspersed with voice-over memories of their beloved leader and excerpts from live stagings of four of Bausch's works, plus archival footage of the blade-thin woman herself, her spirit wafting through the film like the smoke from her ever-present cigarette.
Get crazier: Bausch's choreography (at least to this unversed writer) emphasizes big emotions, Sisyphean gestures, and the pleasingly absurd, sometimes all at once. In Café Müller, an early signature work (context clues help identify the four pieces, which are never explicitly named; neither are the dancers), a couple is frantically assembled and disassembled as a woman leaps into the arms of a man who then drops her, the action repeated at increasingly greater speeds. Stages are filled with dirt, several inches of water, an enormous boulder: The elements aren't only props but also devices integral to the gestures and movements that convey an explosive surfeit of feeling.
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Pina gives us the supreme pleasure of watching fascinating bodies of widely varying ages in motion, whether leaping, falling, catching, diving, grieving, or exulting. Wenders's expert use of 3-D puts viewers up close to the spaces — both psychic and physical, inside and out — of Bausch's work. The film opens with a beaming, topless woman onstage holding an accordion while calling out the names of the four seasons, an invocation followed by a seemingly endless procession of dancers, in suits and gowns, smiling and repeating precise hand gestures that signify spring, summer, fall, and winter. Our eyes follow this snaky line as it travels behind a scrim, and we nearly become part of it. The same formation also appears outside near Wuppertal, the city in northwest Germany where Bausch's company is based. Gliding gracefully at the edge of some industrial crater, these grinning, lithe men and women seem to be offering thanks to the sun and Earth — in other words, to Pina herself.