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Before 'Pina': Memorable moments in dance on film [Video]

January 28, 2012 | 10:30 am


I once asked Alvin Ailey about a particularly unfortunate video shoot and he shrugged, saying that directors who can get the financing for dance projects aren’t always the ones who can do right by the artists involved. Wim Wenders’ "Pina" is an exception. It arguably provides a limited view of Pina Bausch’s importance as a groundbreaking theater artist, but otherwise represents a touchstone of dance-for-camera excellence.

The wonders of 3-D---and Bausch’s innovations---get all the attention in Wenders’ interviews. But if it’s true that most academy members will see "Pina" on the 2-D discs provided them rather than at any 3-D screenings, then, obviously, his Oscar chances in the best feature-length documentary category will depend more on how brilliantly he shoots dance rather than any stereoscopic wizardry. And, for audiences, "Pina" may be most valuable in reminding us of the dimensional vision informing some of the greatest 2-D Hollywood dance films.

Read more about "Pina" and the legacy of dance on film.

Most theater choreographies work across the stage-space but the greatest film dances rotate that axis for greater immediacy. An iconic example is "Cool," a rare dance in "West Side Story" (1961) actually shot by co-director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. (He was fired midway through production.) In a sequence full of in-your-face dancepower, watch the Jets’ oh-so-menacing yet oh-so-cool confrontation with the camera in the final shot.

"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) is most famous for Marilyn Monroe’s obsession with diamonds, but it’s Jane Russell’s flirtation with the mostly scrawny dancer/athletes impersonating the U.S. Olympic team that’s perhaps the most obvious example of Jack Cole’s characteristic dimensional flair.

That same year, MGM shot "Kiss Me Kate" in 3-D, casting some of the finest young dancers in secondary roles. But the choreography remains numbly lateral, never exploring the options of the technology---unless you count all those moments when people throw things at the camera. That kind of 3-D will always be with us but "Pina" proves that there’s much greater potential in creating a tangible sense of space and volume onscreen.

Some directors who don’t normally film dance do so splendidly on special occasions---the late Robert Altman, for example. There are ballets I never want to see again in the theater but Altman made them fresh and exciting for me in "The Company" (2003).

And Wenders’ excerpts from Bausch’s "The Rite of Spring" and "Café Müller" are so fine that I hope he shot those works in their entirety and will include the complete choreographies as special features on the inevitable Blu-Ray and DVD. Bausch deserves no less.

Read more about "Pina" and the legacy of dance on film.

-- Lewis Segal

Photo: Wim Wenders' "Pina." Credit: Donata Wenders