Pina Bausch was a modern dance leader. An early quote refers to dance as a language that has to be learned. This applies for her dancers but also for audiences. As an audience member with no interest in dance, this movie was a challenge for me. It remains a language I don’t speak, although I have learned a few words by watching this movie.
To handle the absence of the central character, Wenders surprisingly uses little existing film footage of Pina, but rather many portrait shots of the dancers looking at the camera with a voice over of their stories and comments about Pina. Very effective emotionally, but when talking about her and her dance philosophy - I’m still unable to speak the language or even learn much about it.
On a more positive front, the movie shows significant excerpts of performances. The ones I enjoyed the most are actually the vignettes of dancers in non-studio or non-theatre settings, including sidewalks, forests, even beside a swimming pool. My favourite is a man on the street dancing while a small dog yaps at his feet the whole time. That integration of dance into modern life and settings did feel appropriate.
The themes of the her longer pieces revolve around the tension between the sexes and a blinding yearning, usually for some sort of connection with others. Apparently that was one of her constant questions to her dancers: "What are you longing for", to which they needed to respond through dance.
Where she stands out in the world of modern dance is in bringing a strong theatrical element into her performances. Where this outweighs the overbearing conceptual aspects of some of her work, such as Cafe Mueller, I can see myself sitting through a performance. For those highly conceptual pieces, it would be really difficult for me to stay connected for any extended period.
The only performance I really enjoyed was Full Moon. All the themes of her work are there, but this one is filled with joy rather than angst. The physical, high energy approach of her dancers combines well with the subject matter.
By watching Pina I learned more about modern dance, something of very little interest to me. But the unique situation Wenders found himself in and his solution to the sudden absence of the film's main subject do create a memorable film, filled with raw sorrow. But precisely that closeness to her death created an overly eulogistic final product.