It was 1984. A strange new dance troupe from Germany, unknown in the U.S. — Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, the subject of Wim Wenders' new documentary Pina opening today — headlined the International Olympics Arts Festival that spread over various venues throughout Los Angeles and opened the festivities at Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

From that moment, everything changed in the performing arts world as we knew it. There was the company's Café Müller, its stage cast in bleak blue/gray, while Bausch, a wraith of a figure in long white slip, trellised herself against a wall. And then, in gunshot bursts of action, came a terrifying array of human activity — figures crashing noisily through a maze of chairs and tables, with no care to avoid physical harm. Bausch's blind flailings, either as spasmodic or staccato steps, triggered the chaos, with some characters as caretakers trying to stem the peril, others as beings in a nightmare, one of them an insensate woman wearing a red fright wig whizzing around in her own manic, inner-directed state.

But all that is only a piece of the Bausch vision. She also showed us her existential humor, in her Joycean odyssey of an opus called 1980, a mosaic rolled out on fragrant green grass that wafted pungently in the air, with performers line-dancing through the audience, wearing sassy street clothes and smiles, their hands doing little semaphores to the good-times '30s band music.

And over the years since then, each rare appearance here of Bausch's Wuppertalers has brought us their unforgettable imprints — until her sudden death, at 69, in June 2009.

Two days after that shocking event, filmmaker Wim Wenders was to have begun his feature-length documentary, “with Pina herself at the center of it,” he said in an interview by phone. “Our concept, forged between us, was to try to watch her eyes at work, deciphering things in her special way — getting at the dancers' truthfulness, shearing away any false notes.”

That, of course, was the heart of the Bausch oeuvre — penetrating the zeitgeist, the inherited remnants of WW II's bloodshed and destruction over Europe, the absence of innocence there.

She did this through pure instinct and in the process her dancers developed their unique essences — hard-living Berliners or mujers from Madrid; robust but low-keyed men — not boyish or beautiful, nothing remotely chorus-line. Now 20-year-plus veterans, these multi-nationals are real people who can act, dance, speak, even plumb their own psyches and involve audiences on an intimate level. They perform as no others on today's stages.

But you will barely see these facets in Pina. Because the company members' plea to Wenders, following Bausch's tragic death, spurred him to proceed with the documentary immediately — while they were still absorbed in the abject loss and mourning they wanted to voice via the film.

“So when we jump-started the project,” Wenders says, “I didn't know where we were going. Without Pina, that is. But we tried to adapt to her process — posing questions, dredging up answers. 'Do something you worked on with her,' I suggested, 'pieces you felt connected you to her.' And sure enough they remembered parts that had been left on the cutting-room floor. We retrieved them — they comprise the outdoor scenes.”

So what resulted was mainly a eulogy, and less a sense of the Wuppertalers' desire for continuing the vast repertory of which they are the masters — all of it interspersed with some eye-catching dance segments filmed on the Wuppertal streets and environs.

Nowhere could we find the superb personality of Dominique Mercy, the weathered blond who can still whip himself into a virtuosic fury of solo movement (as he did when the company brought Danzon to Cal Performances Berkeley in its only U.S. appearance last month). Only his words about Bausch, but none of those characterizations he forged together with her. Seeing his comic portrait of a prissy old lady, also in Danzon, was worth the air fare to Berkeley. Ditto Mechthild Grossmann's piercing portrait of ballet ritual as she fluttered cross-stage in her tutu bustle, prattling about “pretty pink panties and long legs.”

What we did see in Pina was a compelling excerpt from the dance-maker's “Rite of Spring,” made even more so with Wenders' use of 3D. But in the process of deconstructing “Café Müller,” for instance, he canceled out its emotional terror, the sense one got from seeing the piece onstage, performed with its erratic and out-of-control urgency. Nor did he capture Bausch's signature moments of nostalgia, irony, comic perversity, what I like to call her pictorial Samuel Beckett touches.

Still, Wenders has done something wonderful for all those who have never seen nor heard the name Pina Bausch. He's sent her snapshot to the world. Now the entire rep needs to be filmed and not lost to the arts archive.

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