Director Wim Wenders captures a celebrated avant garde dance company in the 3D doco Pina. He talks to Helen Barlow.
When the tall, sinewy dancers of Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal walked along the stage for the world premiere of Wim Wenders latest, Pina, during the Berlin Film Festival, there was one person conspicuously missing - Pina Bausch herself.
Incredibly, the founder of the innovative company had suddenly died, aged 68, just as she was to embark on her long-gestating cinematic venture with her friend and countryman Wim Wenders.
The veteran director of arthouse classics including Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, has dabbled in documentaries before, his best known being the Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club.
Having spent much time following Bausch at work, when she died - having been diagnosed with cancer five days earlier - Wenders was understandably shocked. Initially he dropped his plans to make the film, though after urging from the company's dancers, he went ahead - and filmed the company in 3D.
"I remember my very first meeting with Pina", recalls Wenders. "I was so enthusiastic that I just babbled on and I said we should do a film together one day. That was a quarter of a century ago in 1985. She only smiled and lit another cigarette and didn't say anything, so I didn't really know what that smile meant."
In many ways fate can be cruel. Given that Bausch's work had been documented before, Wenders had been struggling to devise a new means of showing her art.
"I thought it was me who was unable to take that step into the kingdom of her art, but then I finally saw how I could do it," he explains. That was after Wenders saw a rough cut of the concert film U23D in 2006.
"Something magical happened from the first frame on. I almost didn't hear the music anymore, and I saw the potential of this medium. It was rudimentary and jerky and rough and full of faults but I saw the door that I had been waiting to open."
Getting his head around the 3D technology was one thing, then there was the complexity of Bausch's work and reputation.
"Even calling it modern dance is inappropriate," he says. "She created the word Tanztheater, dance theatre. She created plays where the acting is done by dancers. Her art was reading people and their essence, and if you want, their soul, and reading that through the way their bodies express it. She was able to decipher and to read more precisely than anybody I ever met in my life."
Ultimately the brilliance of Wenders' near dialogue-free movie is that he not only has the company dancing during rehearsals and performances, but he takes the dreamlike potency of their movement outside into Wuppertal's industrial landscape, onto the streets, into the factories and into open-faced coal pits. The dancers swoon around a traffic island as cars zoom by, and a woman pirouettes on to a hanging rail car.
"Pina only wanted to see her own dancers in the medium," Wenders explains. "She said, 'Don't show it to me with anybody else, because then I will understand it'. We planned that for July of 2009. The trucks were loaded, we were going to show Pina, she was going to be able to see what her dancers did on live on a huge 3D screen. But she died two days before that."
Her passing meant the film would serve as a visual memorial of her choreography.
"It was never going to be a biography about her. We ruled that out from the beginning. She didn't want that. Even when she was dead we didn't do that. Slowly we understood these pieces that we had selected for the film had to be performed, because it might be for the last time.
"At the time nobody knew how long they were going to be able to continue as a company. It was the dancers who insisted. Pina wanted these plays to be preserved. Her spirit is still there."
What: Pina by Wim Wenders, a documentary about the work of late German choreographer Pina Bausch
Where and when: Opens at cinemas Thursday. Check cinema listings for 3D screenings