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By Philip Martin

This article was published March 9, 2012 at 3:45 a.m.

— Pina

86 Cast: Documentary, with Regina Advento, Malou Airaudo, Ruth Amarante, Pina Bausch, Rainer Behr Director: Wim Wenders Rating: Not rated Running time: 103 minutes

Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated documentary Pina is an act of memorialization and — like Cave of Forgotten Dreams by his fellow traveler in Germany’s New Cinema Werner Herzog — an exploration of the human impulse for creation.

It’s a performance piece that serves primarily as a tribute to the German modern dance choreographer and performer, Pina Bausch, as it presents edited versions of key pieces of her repertoire, performed by her company of four dancers.

Bausch, an old friend of Wenders, died in 2009, just two days before Wenders began shooting the film the two had talked about collaborating on for decades. Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that a tone of hushed reverence permeates the movie, although we might wonder if Bausch herself would have been comfortable with the level of veneration.

Onscreen subtitles tell us this is a film “for Pina” rather than about her, though Wenders’ decision to focus on his friend’s work without providing much background information might make it more difficult for the uninitiated to parse the movie.

So here’s all I know about her: Bausch was well-known in modern dance circles as an innovator and exacting taskmaster who was especially particular about the way her work was presented.

While she and her troupe — the Tanztheater, based in Wuppertal in northwest Germany — were the subject of a number of documentaries during her lifetime (none of which I’ve seen, though I’ve heard of Chantal Akerman’s 1983 film On Tour With Pina Bausch), most moviegoers are probably more familiar with her work than her name — she was the choreographer who sent dancers crashing into the furniture with their eyes closed in an oft-imitated piece called “Cafe Mueller” which was featured in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Me (and is staged here).

We only get glimpses of Bausch herself, via archival footage, and interviews with her dancers — their words dubbed over their silent faces — paint her as more an object of reverence than a real, live woman. She’s not really there, except as an ideal, and though there are moments when Wenders seems to blend his cinema with her art too often we wonder about his choices — would Bausch have signed off on some of the shots that tightly crop her dancers’ bodies? Perhaps, though there are times that the two disciplines seem at odds as the frame seems to straitjacket the bodies.

More successful is the way Wenders “opens up” the pieces in the editing room, intercutting stage performances with those performed on the streets of Wuppertal.

While those interested in the subject will surely want to see Bausch, it might be a bit of a slog for those Philistines (such as your humble reviewer) who come in armed with only the vaguest notion of who Bausch was and why she matters. That’s not exactly a criticism of the film, just a caveat. The film is as beautiful as it is perplexing.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 03/09/2012

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