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Pina

There are a lot of reasons why I waited so long to see Pina. Perhaps the most prominent is the fact that I know virtually nothing about dance. Though my sister and I were raised with a great appreciation for musical theatre, ballet is an artistic medium that I’ve had almost no exposure to. I’ve seen Black Swan (and loved it), but that’s about it. Hell, I can’t dance to save my life without four arrows under me and a bunch of flashing arrows in front of me.

I was worried that this ignorance of dance would hinder my enjoyment of a documentary about dancing. And I was right.

Let’s start with some background for the uninitiated. Pina was developed by writer/director Wim Wenders, a very prestigious German filmmaker who’s been president of the European Film Academy for the past two decades. The movie was designed to be a tribute to the great choreographer Pina Bausch, who tragically and unexpectedly died while the film was in pre-production. The film was subsequently retooled as a posthumous tribute to Pina.

I can’t help wondering what the film might have been like had Pina lived. I’m guessing it would have been a better movie.

Forgive me, I should probably back up. Let me be clear in saying that this is not a bad movie. Not by a long shot. This picture is all about the visuals, after all, and they are extraordinary. It’s patently obvious that a ton of effort went into the choreography, and the dancers are all phenomenal. Then there’s the camerawork, which has some exquisite compositions and movements. Oftentimes, the cinematography and the editing are perfectly and beautifully in sync with the dancers onscreen. The result is an enhanced experience that simply would not be possible in a stage show.

Absolutely everything on both sides of the camera was choreographed, and the results are stunning. That isn’t even getting started on the 3D presentation, which is jaw-droppingly impressive and vital to the movie in a way that I haven’t seen since Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

So what are my problems with the film? I only have two of them, but these are two problems that permeate the entire movie.

First of all, the dancing segments aren’t presented in whole sequences. They’re constantly interrupted by voice-over speeches about Pina and close-ups of the dancers individually. Other times, the dance routines are treated as storylines, stopping at one point only to continue later on. In theory, I can understand how that might work. In practice, it’s a mess.

See, most films are built according to the traditional three-act structure. One of the structure’s many functions is that it provides some guidelines for how storylines can be brought up, advanced, and resolved in such a way that the overall narrative is moved forward. However, because this particular movie does not have a three-act structure or an overall narrative, there’s no visible logic in which “storylines” are brought up when, or even which “storylines” will reoccur at all. Seriously, there are dance routines that stop partway through for no discernible reason and never show up again.

This brings me to another reason why the “storyline” approach doesn’t work here. In most movies, storylines are comprised of individual scenes, each of which has its own distinct beginning, middle, and end. The end is especially important, since it marks the place where one scene can transition into the next without interrupting any dialogue or actions. Compare that to this movie, in which the scene transitions are sudden and immediate. It’s very much like listening to a radio station that switches to a completely different song before the previous song is even halfway over. Very jarring and uncomfortable.

But easily my biggest problem with the movie is in how it teaches about the subject matter. When the dancers and the filmmakers talk about Pina (and they talk about her a lot), it’s pretty much always to share an anecdote or to talk about how great it was to work with her. We learn about her presence and her method of teaching. We learn about how she brought out the best in everyone around her. It’s all great stuff, don’t get me wrong. But as someone who knew absolutely nothing about Pina Bausch going into the theater, I’m far less interested in Pina as a person than I am about Pina as an artist.

I want to learn what distinguished Pina as a choreographer. What messages were she trying to express? Why did she choose certain costumes, sets, and movements? Why did Wenders make a film about Pina, instead of so many other choreographers in the past and present? What was it that set Pina so far above and beyond her peers? There are a handful of answers to these questions, but they don’t come until roughly 90 minutes in. Too little, too late!

In my opinion, this is a real missed opportunity. The filmmakers put a great deal of effort into recreating Pina’s most famous routines, but they should have taken the next step and documented all of that effort. They should have provided some measure of commentary to explain the artistic merit behind Pina’s work, and how difficult it is to put on. Not only might this have led to a more enlightening experience for dance experts, but it would have provided my fellow novices with a deeper appreciation for Pina in particular and for the art of ballet in general.

Pina is a totally unique movie-going experience that was expertly crafted and visually divine… and I was bored through every minute of it. Without any prior knowledge of dance and with absolutely no assistance to understand the ballet routines, I was left without any idea of what the hell I was watching. The tributes to Pina are all very moving, but they did almost nothing to help me understand Pina as an artist or why her work was so important.

Put simply, this is a film made by dancers for dancers. If you’re a fan of Pina Bausch, dancing, or ballet, then you’re going to want to see this movie. Otherwise, feel free to skip it.

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