The German choreographer Philippina Bausch — known to the world simply as Pina — transformed the art of modern dance. When director Wim Wenders first saw a dance performance choreographed by Bausch more than 20 years ago, he was in awe.
"I wasn't into dance," Wenders tells NPR's Neal Conan. "I had to be forced to see my first piece with Pina Bausch ... because, well, I couldn't imagine that dance could possibly concern me. And then it did in the biggest way imaginable."
Wenders says he cried through the entire show and "didn't even know that a man had so much liquid in him." The two met for coffee the next day and began planning the film that would be discussed for the next 20 years.
Bausch died suddenly in the summer of 2009, just days before filming started.
"Pina disappeared ... and none of her dancers, her family, her friends and certainly us, the film crew, was able to say goodbye or thank you," Wenders says.
After her death, Wenders considered abandoning the project altogether. "But the dancers made me realize that there was a film to be made after all, a film for Pina, because we couldn't make one with her anymore."
Pina — a 3-D dance documentary nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature — became an homage to Bausch, a way for Wenders to say goodbye.
Wenders and Bausch became very good friends and spent a lot of time planning how to capture her unique style of dance.
"It took a long, long time to actually find how to translate this splendor and this beauty, and how to put that on screen, which you see the physicality of a live performance," Wenders says.
Wenders realized that 3-D technology was the tool he needed to draw "the audience into the presence of Pina's dances." He spent a year working with 3-D experts before filming began.
The film features dancers performing in all sorts of unusual places — on a mountainside, in the middle of a city and in a factory.
"With the dancers performing all over the place, in nature and in industrial landscapes, I thought it helps the audience to understand this is really not something just aesthetic," says Wenders. "This is about life."
Bausch's dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, continues to perform and will do one of its biggest performances yet during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
The German choreographer Philippina Bausch, known to the world simply as Pina, transformed the art of modern dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PINA")
PHILIPPINA BAUSCH: (Speaking in foreign language)
CONAN: There are situations, of course, she said, that leave you utterly speechless. All you that you can do is hint at things. Words, too, can't do more than just evoke things. That, where dance comes in again. Pina Bausch died suddenly in the summer of 2009. The film "Pina" plays homage to the great choreographer's work and legacy. It's a dance documentary in 3-D, a first for an art house film. It's nominated for best documentary feature at this year's Academy Awards. You can find conversations with the filmmakers of the other four nominees on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Wim Wenders, a friend of Pina Bausch, wrote, produced and directed "Pina." He's known for such films as "Buena Vista Social Club" and "Paris, Texas." He joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you with us. Congratulations on the nomination. And we're sorry for your loss.
WIM WENDERS: Well, thank you for having me, Neal. And - well, we all tried to deal with that last. And that's why made that movie, because "Pina" disappeared from one day to another, and none of her dancers, her family, her friends and certainly us, the film crew, was able to say goodbye or thank you. She just was gone out of a sudden. And there we were. We had planned a movie together. We're close to starting it, and the carpet was pulled from under her feet. And then we realized - I walked away from it first.
But the dancers made me realize that there was a film to be made after all, a film for Pina, because we couldn't make one with her anymore. So we considered making another film together as an homage to her and as our way to say thank you and goodbye.
CONAN: It's interesting, dance is such an ephemeral medium. We see excerpts from her works, but this is not a simple recording of some of her pieces.
WENDERS: No. We really try to take the audience into Pina's universe, and Pina's universe was very, very special. And all the people who think, well, this guy is talking about a dance movie, that can't possibly interest me, include me out - that's what I thought myself. I wasn't into dance. I was - I had to be forced to see my first piece with Pina Bausch more than 20 years ago because, well, I couldn't imagine that dance could possibly concern me. And then it did in the biggest way imaginable.
I cried through the entire evening, did not know what hit me and just realized this was big. This was a whole language that I didn't know. And it had nothing to do with classical ballet or modern dance. It was a whole different language. And my body felt that it belonged to me, and everybody I looked around felt the same. This was about us.
CONAN: There's a excerpt we want to play from your film. This is - this - obviously, much of it is in German and French. There's some in English. We'll hear some of that later. But this is just a piece of music. And we see the dancers in this piece in what looks like a rehearsal hall, maybe a high school gymnasium to give an American perspective on it. There are women on one side. The other side, there are men seated on chairs. Listen to this music, and imagine the men as they scoot these chairs across the gym floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: Wim Wenders, the physicality, the humor, the vibrancy of that scene just swept me away.
WENDERS: Yeah. It's really unbelievable how the men are groping for the women and the women are reaching for the men. They slowly get closer and it's just mayhem. And Pina's work is very much about men and women, how we deal with each other, and how we deal with loss, and how we deal with rejection and love and all of that. It's a whole new language about men and women.
CONAN: We see - you show us her life and her work through the eyes of her dancers, and she had a tremendous influence on her ensemble. They expected feedback from her. For one dancer, Ruth Amarante, that took a long time coming.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PINA")
RUTH AMARANTE: Meeting Pina was like finding a language, finally. Before, I didn't know how to talk. And then she suddenly gave me a way to express myself, a vocabulary. When I began I was pretty shy. I still am. And after many months of rehearsing, she called me and said, you just have to get crazier. And that was the only comment in almost 20 years.
CONAN: You just have to get crazier.
WENDERS: Pina didn't say much. Pina really didn't trust in words. She trusted in her eyes. And she had the most unbelievable look. And if you had Pina's eyes on you, you felt you were completely an open book. She could see right through you. And it wasn't so bad. You didn't feel naked because it was a very gentle and loving look.
CONAN: You say you were dragged to one of her performances some years ago. When did you actually get a chance to meet her?
WENDERS: I met her after that initial evening where I cried all - I mean, through the entire thing and didn't even know that a man had so much liquid in him. And the next day I had coffee with Pina, and it was a short meeting. For 10 minutes we talked - I talked because she didn't say a thing. She just smiled and looked at me. And already then, in my juvenile enthusiasm, I said, Pina, one day the two of us will make a film together. And that was the beginning of this film. And we spoke about it for 20 years.
We became very good friends, and it took a long, long time to actually find how to translate this splendor and this beauty, and how to put that on screen, which you see the physicality of a live performance. I just didn't know how to do it until I finally realized there was a new tool out in the world called 3-D that really allowed me to put this - the audience into the presence of Pina's dances and really immerse them.
CONAN: You not only use 3-D. You use any number of unusual settings for the excerpts from the dances that we see. Yes, there's a theater, but there's a mountainside, there's water, there's lawns, there's the center of a city, there's a factory.
WENDERS: Yeah. We are in traffic with the dancers. We're in unusual places, and some of the dancers were quite surprised when I took them there. But I know what sort of surface I needed. I know who could dance on asphalt and who could dance on gravel. So I felt it was fantastic to take Pina's art back to where it started, because it started her observing people, regular people standing in line. And I just gave it back to them. And by the - with the dancers performing all over the place, in nature and in industrial landscapes, I thought it helps the audience to understand this is really not something just aesthetic. This is about life. This is it.
CONAN: There is - is there a penalty in a way for making it in 3-D? Does that reduce the possibilities of distribution?
WENDERS: Not in the case of "Pina." Millions of people have seen the film now in 3-D. It's been very successful. Also in America, we're playing on 40 cities. And in the beginning, when we came out in Europe about a year ago, now already, we also prepared lots of mono prints, regular prints, because we were quite - not quite sure if cineplexes were going to play this movie.
And it caught on a big way, and it's really caught big audiences. And the thing is, it turned out "Pina" is not a film for dance audiences. It's a film for people who, like me in the beginning when I didn't know about Pina, felt that dance is not for them. It's very, very contagious, and it's a film about healing, and it's about - it's - there's an unknown language there and we realize it - we realize it tells us about who we are in a way that we have never understood and never seen.
CONAN: Let's play another excerpt. This is another piece you set outdoors with a hippopotamus, somebody playing a hippopotamus, in a hippopotamus suit, in the water, and the dancer, Josephine Ann Endicott.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PINA")
JOSEPHINE ANN ENDICOTT: All of her pieces were about love and pain and beauty and sorrow and loneliness. When I had this love affair with the hippopotamus, I was about 28 when I did that piece. I even indentified her with this big sweet hippo monster. I was trying to understand her, figure out why she had to keep working, and working, and working, and working, and always working, and working...
CONAN: And we can hear - well, this - it's funny, of course, but this film is also about grief.
WENDERS: It is about grief. But Pina herself dealt in her life with grief in her own way. She meant it when she said dance, dance. And she thought that dance was a way to deal with the bad things of life, with grief and death and loss. And in some of hardest times in her own life, she created her funniest pieces.
CONAN: And there is tremendous humor in this. Again, not - if you're unfamiliar with her work and unfamiliar with dance, you may take - be taken aback by that. But there is such tremendous humor, all of it expressed visually.
WENDERS: Yeah. I mean, I was at rehearsals with her and her dancers. And I thought, do they ever get anything done? Because they laughed all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: There was an interesting moment where one of the dancers recalls the beginning of the troupe, where they met at a station, train station every day for coffee and a sandwich before laying out the day's work and he said, we always felt more than human.
WENDERS: Yeah. She had an uncanny ability to get the best out of everybody and to make people surpass themselves. And actually in Pina's presence some of her dancers, yes, they felt they were almost like angels.
CONAN: We're talking with Wim Wenders, the writer, producer and director of one of the films that's nominated for this year's Academy Award for best feature length documentary. It's about Pina Bausch, the great German choreographer. It's called "Pina." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Mentioned earlier, obviously dancers an ephemeral medium. In a way, in a few years there will be people who remember Pina for this film. That will be their memory of her.
WENDERS: Yeah. And I'm glad we sort of erected this monument for Pina's work because dance theater, as you say, is ephemeral. If it's not played it doesn't exist anymore because you can't write it down and pass it on to another company, another theater to play it. It is - it exists as long as you can perform it, and that was Pina's great worry and that's why she was so interested in doing this film with me together in order to find a language to preserve some of her work.
And she had been involved in other movies and recordings and she, like me, thought there was always something missing. Wim, there's got to be a better way to film dance, she said to me. And it took us a long way. It took us 20 years to find a better way in. I think very immodestly, I think with 3-D we found a language that'll be difficult in the future to film dance any other way.
CONAN: And is the film that you made, in structure how similar is it to the film that you envisioned making when she was still alive?
WENDERS: It has the same backbone. The four pieces we shot of which we only use excerpts, which is about maybe half the film, is the backbone of it. And that would've been the backbone of the film we were going to do together with Pina, but the film we wanted to make together was a very, very different thing. We would've observed Pina working, would have traveled with her to Southeast Asia, to - with her and her company to Brazil. I would've been able to really see Pina's eyes at work, and that was no longer possible. And we tried to make another film about her eyes by looking at these people who had Pina's eyes on them for 20 or sometimes even 30 years, because some of these dancers are older that you'd ever expect someone to dance on a stage and some of them are young; they're from 20 to 60 years old.
And they do reflect in the film who Pina was, and they altogether - we made a great effort to create this kaleidoscope of Pina's universe and give people an impression what this language was all about and what this woman, as a pioneer, really invented. She put dance upside down. Well, in my book she put it back on its feet.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Is the company able to stay together? Is her work going continue to be performed?
WENDERS: Oh, yes. They are very strong and confident now. They were, as you can imagine with Pina's sudden disappearance, they are completely lost, and it was important that we made this film together. And the year we spent together was a very important year for them because it made them realize that they have this treasure now and that they are the only ones who can carry it into the world. And I don't know, a friend of mine who knows them really well and who's observed them for a long time said, it's funny to watch them from - turning from disciples to apostles.
And that's what they are now. They're really spreading the word, and without them, Pina's work would no longer exist, except in our movie. And actually this year, during the summer Olympics in London they're doing the biggest thing in the history of that company. They're doing 10 pieces of "Pina" in two theaters in London during the Olympics.
CONAN: We see glimpses of her during the film, shots of her in rehearsal, that clip we played earlier where she speaks near the beginning of the film. Finally, near the very end of the film we see a clip of - we're seated through the 3-D in a theater watching something on a screen and it is Pina herself, seeming to be performing, rehearsing, dancing solo all in black. Before she leaves the shot, she waves goodbye.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PINA")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PINA BAUSCH: And otherwise, we are lost.
CONAN: Wim Wenders, thanks very much for your time. Congratulations on Oscar night.
WENDERS: Thank you so much, Neal, and all the best to you too.
CONAN: Wim Wenders' film is "Pina." Again, we've spoken with the directors and filmmakers behind all of this year's Oscar nominees for best feature documentary. Go to our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'll be out of here for the next couple of weeks. Be good. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.