Director Wim Wenders On Filming the Work of Pina Bausch in 3-D

Wenders spent 20 years trying to figure out how he could bring the experience of a live Pina show to the screen. When 3-D returned in popularity, he saw his chance.

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Donata Wenders / Sundance Selects

What is dance theater and what makes it different?

Normally, actors don’t really dance and dancers don’t really act, so Pina needed her dancers to be great actors. She invented a form that was really neither ballet nor theater. Simply a new discovery that there was something else that you could do on stage, you just let the body speak its own language. And in a way where the audience could discover that they spoke that language. That’s what made me cry so much the first time I saw it and I didn’t know what was happening to me. I realized that my body understood that language on the stage – I spoke that language, I just didn’t know that I was knowledgeable. And the emotion that these dancers can create went straight into my bones and my bones knew what they were talking about.

And it’s not an aesthetic thing. Ballet is in many ways a very aesthetic experience, but dance theater is not at all. Pina didn’t really care about aesthetics. She said it herself: “I’m not interested in how my dancers move – I’m interested in what moves them.” And that is the entire difference right there.

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How much had you accomplished with Pina before her death? It sounds like you had to change the premise of the film significantly.

All the dancers you see are the dancers of the last couple of years of Pina’s company. Some of them have been with Pina since the beginning — for 20 or even 30 years. That was her company. And Pina decided only 4 pieces that we would record together for the film. And these four pieces had to be put on the agenda of the theater so we could film them, so they’d be rehearsed and everything.

But then she died before we could even start recording them. And the concept for the film we had written, which was a film about and with Pina,  that concept was completely obsolete and that film could not be made any more. And I abandoned it. I announced to the crew and the production partners that there was no more movie. It was impossible to think of it. And that was the end of it for me. And I would have never reconsidered my position if it hadn’t been for the dancers.

How did the dancers convince you

It was only through these dancers that I was able to take the audience into the world of Pina Bausch.  That they became Pina’s translators. As we couldn’t make the film with Pina anymore, and the only thing left for us to do was a film for Pina – all these dancers, together, took Pina’s part, so to speak.

They came to me two months after my decision to cancel and they said “Listen, we’re now starting to rehearse the pieces that the two of you chose together for your film and it could very well be that they’ll be performed for the last time. So we think, as we’re doing it now, we think you should do it too.”

And it made a lot of sense. They needed to do this movie – more than me. They needed to find a way to say their goodbyes to Pina because none of them could do that. Nobody had. None of her friends, family or dancers had been able to say goodbye. She’d disappeared from one day to the next. And I realized then that I wanted to say thank you and I wanted to say goodbye and I didn’t have an outlet. So I realized the movie was maybe more important for the living than as an homage to Pina and that convinced me we should make a movie – not the one we had planned, but we had to make another movie together.

Was there an effort to reconstruct her voice and use her vision as if she’d been involved? Or to shift the film so that it was more about the dancers?

Pina didn’t want any biography. She didn’t want this film to be about herself. From the very first time, 20 years ago when we first started talking about it until the very end when we wrote the concept for a 3-D film together, she didn’t want it to be about herself; about her childhood or how she learned to dance – she just wanted it to be about the work. I needed to respect that even as we were going ahead to make the film without her.

What would Pina think of the finished product?

Pina was so utterly critical with herself and with everybody. I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I had to ask myself that question each and every day. Because we really planned this together and I thought that I was going to do this with her standing next to me. So when I found myself setting up these scenes without her next to me, I looked over my shoulder and wondered to myself: “Is this good enough? Is this what I promised Pina?” And really asked her “Do you like it?”  Because she was so close – I mean, for the dancers and for me. She was really present in a mighty way.

All the time, I thought of an audience, a person who did not know Pina’s work. I didn’t have an audience in mind that was dance literate. I thought it was great for people to see this film who were almost like me before I saw Pina – people who said “Dance is not for me, include me out.” For these people, I made the film.

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