Behind the Scenes of Pina: An Interview with Wim Wenders

Written by Mariko Nagashima

Ditta Miranda Jasjfi in “Vollmond” in Wim Wenders’ PINA. 
©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. 
A Sundance Selects release.

Wim Wenders, the man behind the stunning dance documentary Pina, spoke thoughtfully and unpretentiously while discussing his latest work. With soft tufts of grey hair and black heavy rimmed glasses, the director was eager to discuss many aspects of the film. Here are the answers to questions posed by SeattleDances readers:

SD: What led you to create Pina in the first place?

WW: It was the impact that her work had on me when I encountered it first. Well, I never made it a secret that I wasn’t very much into dance before, wasn’t a dance aficionado, classical ballet never meant much to me, neither did modern dance. And only getting to see Pina’s work had really blown me away completely and opened a whole new way for me to think of dance, and to receive it and to feel concerned and touched by it. Mainly because I felt it had meant so much to me; I mean really opened wide, huge doors for me in my life, that I wanted to spread the virus. I had suggested the film in the first place and Pina had slowly liked the idea and it turned around she was the one pushing for it and asking me to finally do it and not just talk about it! It was a long, long process, it lasted 20 years, because I was stalling for time and hesitating. I always felt it would be necessary to disappoint Pina because I didn’t think I could do it better than dance had been done before. I could do it a little better, but not essentially better. And I felt Pina really wanted something essentially different and better. And for me that possibility only opened itself up with 3D. 

SD: How did you choose the four works presented in the film?

WW: Pina herself chose them. We discussed it when we were together; for the film we really wanted to do together, the two of us. The limitation of four was also a necessity. They needed to be done onstage, they needed the sets, and that could only be done in performance. It had to be in the schedule of the Tantztheater, and in one season the maximum to handle was four pieces. And that was also for me, I thought, the maximum for a shoot…that we couldn’t handle more. Pina brought up Café Müller and Right of Spring off the bat and that would have been my own choices, because they are, in a way, the two classic pieces of the company. So they were set, we didn’t really discuss but accepted that this was necessary, and we loved it. Pina felt that we should choose something modern, [so] we did Vollomond, because it was done in 2006 and was one of Pina’s most successful pieces. Then, all of a sudden, we only had one piece left we had to choose from almost 40 pieces! And that was really tough. The first three we chose in one day, the last one took us weeks. There were several favorites, but slowly Kontakthof emerged as a favorite. And I was pushing very hard for it because it had a very unique place in Pina’s world and the history of dance. I don’t think any choreographer ever did the same movement in the same piece with three generations. The dancers themselves were all for it because they hadn’t done it in a long time and they were eager to do it. And I had seen it with the teenagers, and I had seen the senior citizens, and I thought it was extraordinary that one could cut through the generations, so to speak. When I told that to Pina she looked at me and said “What do you mean cut through the generations?” and I said “Well, if we filmed them, all three ensembles with the same choreography that would be amazing!” She couldn’t really quite imagine it, but then again she loved doing it, and the dancers really pushed hard for Kontakthof […] and that was decided as the fourth and last.

SD: What were some of the challenges of using this particular 3D medium to shoot dance, of mixing close up work with whole group shots?

WW: To shoot performances, we had to shoot so the audience wasn’t too disturbed of course, we couldn’t enter the stage. We shot each of the pieces six times in 6 days, and at least three were with public performances and then we had two or three days where we had the stage to ourselves and that’s when we could actually interrupt and go on stage. The public performances were always shot in one go. It was not, I mean it was hard work to know each of the pieces by heart in order to know where the best angle was in order to look at the architecture that was Pina’s choreography, but that wasn’t all that difficult. I think the greatest difficulty to me was to make sure that the dancers weren’t starting to act to the camera. And that was my greatest worry, really. That they would show me something that was not in Pina’s spirit. Her main concern was the truth of the performance, not the perfection of it. At one moment Pina had said, “I’m not interested in how my dancers move, I’m only interested in what makes them move.” For her, dance was something that showed something about who they were, and how they had become what they are, so she wanted them to be utterly themselves. She didn’t want them to perform characters or roles. And I was very afraid that the presence of cameras would change that and that they would play to the camera and that they would become characters. And I was very amazed how much they were immune to that and how much they really refrained from that.

SD: A lot of dancers wondered about the origin of the dance vignettes, the brief solos and duets, in the film. Were they Bausch’s choreography or the dancer’s tributes to her? And how were the costumes chosen for each of them?

WW: In the first place, all these solos were answers to my questions about Pina. I asked all sorts of questions: “When did you feel Pina was closest to you?” “What did she see in you that you didn’t even know yourself?” or “Can you tell me about Pina’s eyes?” And, like in their work with Pina, they were not allowed to answer with words, but only with dance. And as I’m not a choreographer, and that was the peculiarity of how we proceeded, I asked them to please answer with something out of the rich treasure everybody had of working with Pina. Of the pieces they had developed with Pina, there were hours and hours of [material] and only very little had ended up in the piece. So I asked them to answer with something Pina’s eyes had been on. Sometimes it was from an older piece, sometimes it was from a rehearsal situation, or sometimes it was something that hadn’t been in a piece. But it was always something that Pina had seen and looked at. We also only used costumes that existed. My main collaborator was Marion Cito, who was Pina’s costume designer since 1980; she was a dancer herself and she was Pina’s costume designer. For those answers [to my questions] that did not have a costume because they never made it into a piece, we decided together what they would wear and she picked only costumes that Pina had seen and had known. But it was a challenge in these pieces that were not from an existing piece.

SD: How did you choose the beautiful locations each of these solos was set in? Were they suggested by the dancers?

WW: No, no, not at all! So, we worked on answers for a long time, and some showed me three or four different answers. Once I knew all the answers, the complete body of answers, I started to select them, similar to the way Pina did. And it was like the overall puzzle of the answers would give the most complete image of Pina’s universe. Because some were not in pieces, and some were in older pieces that had not played forever, I had no stage sets for them, which was good because we were almost forced to find someplace else. I had said in my head that I would find for each and every one of them, an outdoor location that in one way or another would correspond to it. And, as I hoped, would bring out the best in each and every one. So I found a specific place for each, and as I know each [dance], I knew who would need a very smooth floor, I knew who could do it on sand, or who could do it on asphalt. Most of the dancers didn’t know the places before we shot. And that was a good thing, that they just adjusted to it, and also then reacted to the place. I thought that was very good. And they also enjoyed that part of it that they knew what they were going to do and I was showing them the place that they didn’t expect for it.

SD: Was it difficult to work with the dancers without Pina’s presence?

WW: It was tough for them especially in the beginning because they were still in so much of a shock. But I have always at least one of them with me to judge, to look from outside. Dominique Mercy, who is the artistic director, one of Pina’s oldest dancers, was always there because I needed the dancers to look at anything that was dance related. I’m not a choreographer. There would be times I liked it and Dominique would say “Look her foot is sticking out, it’s not possible.” So, I learned a lot of course, but I always relied on the dancers for what was dancer-related. They really cooperated immensely through the whole thing.

SD: What was it like to have known Pina, as a friend, not as a genius choreographer or theatrical wonder?

WW: She was a very secretive person, she didn’t talk much, that’s for sure. She was very shy but when she opened up to her friends and especially in rehearsal she would laugh a lot. Very joyful. She wasn’t talkative, even with her dancers and with her friends. Communication with Pina was presence, it was being there and being seen by her and seeing her. Over the years she became for me like the older sister I never had. We were very, very close.

SD: It’s amazing to hear how true to Pina you were throughout the film, only using choreography and costumes that she had seen. It gives the film has such a depth of humanity and truth to it. 

WW: That’s her work, that’s the impact of her work for everybody; it’s the sheer humanity of it. And the fact that you realize that dance belongs to common humanity, it’s not an elitist thing. That it just belongs to everybody. That was the whole reason to make the film. To make her work shine as good as possible and to refrain from imposing ourselves on it, or bringing myself into the equation. I did through the locations, but even then, the locations were a way to make the choreography and to make the ideas behind it as clear as possible. So in many ways it was a tribute, an homage, to Pina. Our way of saying thank you and goodbye, in many ways Pina was very, very present in every day, in every take, and we tried our best to make her appear, not ourselves.