Pina opens Friday in 2-D and 3-D (see showtimes below)

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It’s not surprising that, for a couple of decades, film director Wim Wenders’ plans for a movie on works by dance theater choreographer Pina Bausch devolved into a running gag. Whenever the two friends’ paths crossed, Bausch would ask when they were going to start. Wenders’ reported response: “As soon as I know how.”

Archivists and reconstructors face an uncomfortable truth when it comes to choreography: Film and video are notoriously problematic in capturing dance. Part of the reason is simple physics: the flattening that unavoidably occurs when a dynamic, three-dimensional event is translated to a two-dimensional plane like a television or movie screen. When an entire dimension is removed from our experience, distance, depth and perspective become abstractions, approximations at best, even on multicamera shoots that remain a rarity in dance.

In addition, a sense of presenceour physical proximity to the people in the world of the performanceis compromised, if not obliterated. For years, the silver fabric at the multiplex, the glass surface of the TV monitor was impermeable; nothing could pass through.

But increased audience interest and accompanying advances in 3-D film technology over the last decade finally broke the impasse between Wenders and Bauschand not a moment too soon. The two began work on a 3-D documentary of influential early works and recent repertory:

Café Müller and Kontakthof (Contact Courtyard), her 1975 interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and 2006’s Vollmond (Full Moon). After a year in preproduction and experiments with the technology, Bausch died unexpectedly, two days before the scheduled start of shooting in June 2009.

Wenders briefly halted production until he was encouraged to continue by a dance world faced with permanently losing Bausch’s work. Thus, what reportedly is the first 3-D art-house film came to fruition.

Not only is this work a must-see for dance lovers, it’s also for film students and those with an interest in the future of the genre. When a colleague in Washington, D.C., described it before last week’s screening, she said, “Finally, someone has figured out what 3-D was invented for.”

It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. What was strictly once the province of cheesy gimmicks and gross-out horror effects proves here to be a tool of discernment and considerable strength. Its effect in Pina is simultaneously discreet and fairly profound.

Instead of suddenly ejecting body parts and other miscellanea into a darkened auditorium, in the hands of Wenders and colleagues including stereographer Alain Derobe, Francois Garnier and Erwin Schmidt, the 3-D photography in Pina subtly moves us, as viewers, into the world where the performance occurs. The sense of physical proximity is not only restoredwhen cameras place us only several feet away from these dancers, in performance footage and beautiful and uncanny one-on-one encounters, the effect of such intimacy is magnified.

Bausch’s work is, in many ways, ideal for such an experience. Since the 1970s, she had been an icon of a form called tanztheater, a unique merger of dance and theater. Simply put, her works tell stories through nonverbal means. Many of them are critical of our culture, if not our civilization. In the drama of her choreography she stalked human experiences beyond language. “Words can’t do more than just evoke things,” she says in interview footage seen here. “That’s where dance comes in.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Beyond words.”