3D dance takes a great leap forward

The 3D revolution is coming to dance. Pioneering film-makers, among them Wim Wenders, tell us why the two were made for each other

Wayne Eagling is not sure what to expect. The choreographer is sitting in front of a large monitor, clunky glasses balanced on his nose. He's about to view the first footage of his ballet Men Y Men, a celebration of the poetry and virtuosity of male dancing, which is being filmed in 3D for TV. "When I think of 3D," he says, "it's always that moment in the Andy Warhol movie Frankenstein, where the stake goes through the body, and the liver seems to be dangling right out of the screen." He jokes nervously: "That's not the kind of effect I'm hoping for here."

When the monitor flickers on, Eagling relaxes. "Its good, very lifelike, almost as if you're watching from the front of stage." The dancers – members of English National Ballet, the company Eagling directs – appear even more enthusiastic. One, Van Le Ngoc, crows: "It's so intense, it looks like we do in real life – only better."

When I put on my own glasses, I have to agree: the dancers' bodies jump into gilded high definition, the flesh on their bare chests and arms looking solid and bright. Their movements acquire sculptural volume; pirouettes no longer appear like flat pinwheels, but revolve with a deep, spiralling expansiveness. Best of all, there is an illusion of air around each body, restoring the dancers to their proper element: space.

It's these qualities – space, volume, energy, excitement – that Eagling was hoping to capture when he agreed to participate in Dance Dance Dance, a programme being shot by Sky Arts for the launch of its new 3D channel this weekend. Taking in everything from Bollywood to classical ballet to swing, six dances will feature in the programme, one of them (Shobana Jeyasingh's Counterpoint) filmed in the fountains of London's Somerset House.

"Ballet has never worked on screen for me," says Eagling. "It's always looked so flat. I wanted to see if it could work any better, and this is promising." The shoot is happening in a small theatre at London's Toynbee Studios, and the technology required to produce these lively images is taking up almost all of the venue. This is the first time that Mark James, who is directing the film, has ever worked in 3D. "So far," he says, "I've learned everything from reading a huge book."

If this Sky project is offering a taster of what 3D can do for dance, next year a far more sophisticated and expansive view will be coming to cinemas with Wim Wenders's Dance or We Are Lost (aka Pina), about the late German choreographer Pina Bausch. Wenders, currently in the post-production phase of the project, is a complete convert to the poetics and possibilities of 3D, having spent the last 18 months immersed in filming and editing. "I can safely say," he says, "that 3D and dance are made for each other."

Famous for the invention and intimacy of documentaries such as Buena Vista Social Club, as well as for movies such as Wings of Desire, Wenders has wanted to make a film about Bausch for a quarter of a century, but could never figure out how to make it work in 2D. "When I actually sat down and tried to imagine this film, I came to the painful conclusion that I simply did not have the grammar and vocabulary as a film-maker."

Bausch's works certainly present a unique challenge to anyone seeking to translate them to the screen. They are huge, with casts of up to 30 dancers and set designs on a monumental scale; what's more, their emotional power is derived not just through Bausch's choreography, but also through the physical personalities of the dancers and the currents of fear, anxiety and desire that pass invisibly between them.

That's all hard stuff to capture on film. But for Wenders, it was the inability to recreate the element of space, through which the dancers move, that was the main stumbling block. "Space is the dancers' very own medium. With every gesture, with every step, they conquer space – and cinema has never been able to give us access to that." Wenders didn't think his project would ever be possible; then, in 2007, he saw his first modern 3D film. Despite its technical flaws, he suddenly knew his Bausch film could be made. "With 3D, I was convinced we could finally enter the dancers' very own realm."

When Wenders began filming in 2009, however, the machinery and the expertise available to him couldn't deliver his vision. "It was hard to get a natural organic feel in the dancers' movements. We were horrified, after our first tests, at how edgy and rough they looked. It took us a million tricks, and all the experience and knowledge of my stereographer, Alain Derobe, to finally eliminate these problems."

But, steep as the learning curve has been, Wenders has spent the last year happily lost in the brave new 3D world; the experience has left him convinced it's the ideal medium for dance. "As a spectator, you're involved like never before: you feel the essence of movement – motion and emotion."

Tragically for Wenders, Bausch herself will not see the film, nor was she able to collaborate on it. Her sudden death last summer put an end to their hopes of working together on a road movie, intended as a metaphor that would draw the viewer into Bausch's world. Instead, Wenders has had to revise his vision, making a film record of the choreographer's work without the choreographer herself.

Still, for Bausch fans worldwide, such a record is precious. Dance is the most ephemeral of art forms, existing only at the moment of performance, and it's always suffered from inadequate forms of reproduction. However artfully filmed, the dancers always look diminished in two dimensions, like specimens trapped behind glass, and it's all but impossible to capture the emotional and physical impact of live performance. With 3D, however, film is coming much closer to mimicking that impact. For all of those who feared that Bausch's work might die with her, Wenders's experiments in 3D offer a new kind of immortality.

And as the technology becomes cheaper and more available, other possibilities may open up. Eagling is already wondering what it would be like to choreograph a dance specifically for 3D, and what kind of effects he could explore. "People have created some good dances for television in the past," he muses. "But this would be something different. It's a whole new dimension."

• Dance Dance Dance is on Sky 3D, Saturday, at 9pm. Dance Or We Are Lost (aka Pina) is out next year.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

This week's arts diary

Charlotte Higgins: Merkel dons 3D glasses for Pina, plus a hoodie with a clarinet and Berlin's art oasis

Charlotte Higgins

15, Feb, 2011 @10:29 PM

Article image
Pina review – Wim Wenders’ heartfelt 3D tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch
Wenders’s film about Bausch, who died during production, uncovers the crucial state of yearning in her work

Peter Bradshaw

21, Apr, 2011 @9:00 PM

Article image
Tesseract review – strap in for the shapeshifting worlds of Charles Atlas
Inspired by a 1940s sci-fi novella, the artist teams up with Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener for a bracing dance experiment

Lyndsey Winship

01, Mar, 2019 @12:43 PM

Article image
The top five dance shows this spring

From Angelin Preljocaj's dark Snow White to Tanztheater Wuppertal on tour, Judith Mackrell picks the spring dance highlights

Judith Mackrell

09, Apr, 2012 @8:46 PM

Judith Mackrell on dance and the Olympics 
Almost everything I'm due to see over the next two months seems hellbent on breaking records for size or scale, says Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

03, Jun, 2012 @6:15 PM

Article image
Charlotte Higgins takes on the challenge of becoming a full-time blogger

After years of covering the arts in print, Charlotte Higgins is taking on the challenge of becoming a full-time blogger

Charlotte Higgins

22, Jul, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Cunningham review – powerful 3D documentary about a dance pioneer
This highbrow study is fascinating less for its fancy 3D footsteps than for its insight into choreographer Merce Cunningham’s life and work

Cath Clarke

11, Mar, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Jefferson Hack’s fashion-dance mashup: Dancers from Tanztheater Wuppertal perform in Prada
A dream team of fashion houses and choreographers, from Alexander McQueen to Wayne McGregor, are collaborating on a series of films, including this piece, choreographed and performed by some of the dancers from Tanztheater Wuppertal – watch it here exclusively

Judith Mackrell

15, Apr, 2015 @3:34 PM

Article image
The Rite of Spring at Sadler's Wells: 'It takes you to so many places'

Nijinsky set it in tunics, Pina Bausch as a brutal battle of the sexes – so just how do you dance to Stravinsky's most violent score? Judith Mackrell talks to Akram Khan, Javier de Frutos and other leading choreographers about following the greats

Judith Mackrell

03, Apr, 2013 @5:30 PM

Article image
Wim Wenders on Pina: 'Pina had gone deep into research of the human soul' - video

The director of Pina, which pays tribute to the legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch and has had its world premiere at the Berlin film festival, tells Charlotte Higgins how filming in 3D helped honour her memory

Charlotte Higgins and Henry Barnes

14, Feb, 2011 @5:38 PM