As is obvious by now, 3-D cinema doesn’t replicate reality in its infinite gradations of depth so much as offer a stylized version of it - a trick we buy into when it works and instinctively resist when it doesn’t. It is an abstraction, in other words, and in the right hands the technology can be to visual perception what dance can be to movement: a focusing, a heightening, a paring away of everything that doesn’t matter from everything that does.
In “Pina,’’ the right hands belong to the German director Wim Wenders as he frames the work of the late modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch. The film, soberly ecstatic and the latest proof (with Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo’’ and Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams’’) that 3-D can serve as midwife to art and exhilaration, is an unexpected eulogy. Wenders had been planning the project for years and was two days away from filming when Bausch died suddenly, of cancer, in 2009. In her absence, “Pina’’ became both testament and memorial.
A straightforward documentary it isn’t, since Bausch is only an occasional presence in rehearsal footage and old clips. Her spirit imbues every frame of “Pina,’’ though, through staged dance numbers and in filmed interviews with the dancers of her Tanztheater Wuppertal. The latter, filmed unspeaking as we hear their words on the soundtrack, have the stunned solemnity of children who’ve lost their mother, and while their grief is undeniable, we don’t learn much about the artist beyond her role as a shaper of creative confidence. “Pina was a painter - we became the paint,’’ says one dancer, and there’s the problem. How articulate can a medium be toward the artist who explores it?
Where “Pina’’ excels - where it resembles no previous dance film - is in the staging of several of Bausch’s signature works for Wenders’s cameras. The film begins with 1975’s “The Rite of Spring,’’ in which the choreographer used Stravinsky’s pounding cadences as the backdrop for a . . . creation myth of the gender wars, waves of men and women pulsing toward each other in fear and abandon.
Like so much of Bausch’s work, the piece exists in a landscape beyond rational thought. “There are situations that leave you truly speechless - you can only hint at things,’’ the choreographer is quoted as saying, and her dances ache with a primal yearning that’s as close to the life force as art may ever get you.
“Café Müller,’’ a 1978 work that can be glimpsed in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film, “Talk to Her,’’ is here in fuller form, a frenetic and oddly moving pas de trois of men, women, and chairs. It feints at notions of personal expression and unrequited love, asking “Where can we ever rest?’’ and “How can I ease her suffering?,’’ and in Wenders’s 3-D lens the piece seems more elemental than ever - a pop-up book of longing.
“Pina’’ often heads into the cold Wuppertal air, staging Bausch’s pieces in abandoned railway tunnels, in a public pool, at busy intersections, on a monorail car. In a sequence that re-creates a passage from the choreographer’s rarely-screened 1989 film “The Plaint of the Empress,’’ a dancer in a flowing gown drifts across a lawn with a leaf-blower strapped to her back, the scattering leaves part of the dance.
These exterior scenes are striking but almost too visually busy for the choreography to register with full force; the 3-D real world interferes with the stark dimensionality of Bausch’s creative innerspace. By contrast, 1978’s “Kontakthof’’ (“Meeting Hall’’), with its fraying lines of men and women, is set indoors but expanded into different generations of dancers, teenagers, adults, and senior citizens all going through the eternal steps of the mating game. And a solo number in which dancer Lutz Förster, wearing a bespoke suit, elegantly finger-tuts to the Caetano Veloso ballad “O Leozinho’’ is a reminder that Bausch could work just as well on a tiny scale as on the epic.
You do have to wonder what Pina would think of “Pina.’’ An exacting purist, Bausch might carp at the way Wenders uses editing to meddle with the visual rhythms of her work, and she’d be right to note that movie 3-D is hardly a replacement for experiencing dance in the living, breathing flesh. What the filmmaker has created is an inspired simulacrum - a jewel-box that contains more of Bausch’s kinetic soul than film has any right to. It’s a parting gift from one artist to another.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.