writers on dancing


Letter from New York

Dance on Camera Festival
Katy Matheson: In Memoriam

The 2005 Dance on Camera Film Festival, cosponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York-based Dance Films Association, has just begun its screenings at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, and, as usual, its offerings cover the waterfront: documentaries, performance records, dances made especially for the camera, ballet, modern dance, postmodern dance, jazz, tango, dances from Western theatrical traditions, dances from Eastern Europe and Asia, films made a century ago, films made yesterday.

On the festival’s opening day, this past Friday, one could see “The Gods of Bali,” a documentary-travelogue released in 1952, which contains eye-popping footage (lensed by a Dutch filmmaker in the 1930’s) of Balinese children, aged five to eight, dancing, as well as of children and adults performing rituals and ceremonies; a virtuoso adult male dancer serves as a kind of “home” between the various episodes. The raw footage was edited into a film, and a soundtrack was added, with narration scripted and recorded, in the early 50’s by documentarian Robert Snyder, assisted at the time by his new bride, Allegra Fuller Snyder. (Neither of the Synders at that point had ever, themselves, been in Bali; and they shelved the movie for the next half century, as they had reservations about whether their sound, much of it out of sync and the product of guessed-at relationships with the cinematography, was appropriate to the events being shown.) Accompanying “The Gods of Bali” was the 2001 “Children’s Dance at Arma,” a five-minute-long cameo, by filmmaker Anna Ivara, of Balinese children being taught to dance today. Having seen each film once, I can say that the dancing children now are obviously chosen with theatrical values in mind, in terms of both physique and regularity of facial features. However, these little dancers also look more tense, almost angry in their intensity to perform well, while the children of the 30’s, although also executing maneuvers that required concentration and endurance, look relaxed within their action; the dance truly does seem to be inhabiting their bodies—an impulse for which they are prepared vessals.

Both Allegra Snyder, now professor emeritus of Dance and Dance Ethnology at U.C.L.A., and Ms. Ivara were on hand to discuss their films. Ms. Ivara, who has made many trips to Bali in recent years, attested that she had seen live everything depicted by the Dutch cinematographers in the 30’s, with the exception of an episode during a cremation ceremony in which the bodies about to burned, many of them children’s, were kicked around playfully like footballs to show, as the narrator explains, that the bodies without their presiding spirits were mere matter. One would need to know much more about Balinese culture to determine whether the islanders of the 30’s were engaging in a traditional activity there or, possibly, inventing one for the camera.

After a break, the iconic feature film “The Red Shoes,” by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which is rarely shown in theaters anymore, was introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell’s widow and the film editor of choice for Martin Scorsese, who, as Ms. Schoonmaker explained, has been deeply and quite specifically inspired by the ’48 Powell and Pressburger film. (She also said that there were plans afoot to make “The Red Shoes” as early as 1937, with Merle Oberon as the star and using a dance double for the theatrical and studio scenes.) One of the startling discoveries for me of seeing the theatrical projection of this movie, which I’ve watched many times before on a monitor, is the patent homage within it to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 “Beauty and the Beast.” One mystery about it, too, was the Technicolor, so crucial to the painterly set designs and expressive effects of Hein Heckroth (whose theatrical work prior to “The Red Shoes” included the designs for the masks worn by the Diplomats in Kurt Jooss’s ballet “The Green Table”). When Moira Shearer’s Vicky Page climbs those stone steps, overgrown with grass, in Monte Carlo, her magnificent Jacques Fath evening gown is teal blue in the projected version yet emerald green on the Beta and DVD versions. (A film editor, who was sitting next to me at the screening, explained that it would be very difficult, without production notes, to know which color was the true one, as Technicolor in the late 1940’s was extremely unstable. She also noted that there were revelations for her in seeing the movie projected, such as the indoor look to the backgrounds of the some of the shots that were, at first glance, supposed to be taking place outdoors.) Although “The Red Shoes” no longer speaks to dancers with the immediacy it once did—as a class to which I recently showed it explained, ballerinas today don’t have to choose between life and art anymore, and dancers now are so savvy and self-protective that they don’t permit themselves to surrender their emotional well-being to charismatic artistic directors—the performances by Ms. Shearer, Léonide Massine, and Robert Helpmann remain indelible, as does the nondancing performance of Anton Walbrook as the Diaghilev figure, Boris Lermontov. And the image of Ludmilla Tcherina, an Olga Spessivtzeva figure, in her opening solo for Act II of “Giselle,” pulling up to rélevé on full point from her grands tours hops on flat—a transition that almost no ballerina today does—remains a marvel.

The day wound up with a screening of “Carmen and Geoffrey,” a loving 2004 documentary, by Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob, of the spectacular married couple consisting of dancer extraordinaire Carmen de Lavallade and dancer, designer and painter Geoffrey Holder, both of whom were on hand to speak. This film was accompanied by a short, also from 2004, called “Tongue Bully,” featuring the Trinidadian choreographer and performer Learie McNicholls, by filmmaker Annie Bradley. (All of these films will be screened again later in the festival. See below for details.)

Among the other programs coming up, I’d like to recommend two films in particular. The first, a treasure, is a documentary from 2003 by Russian Victor Bocharov called “Late Premiere.” Its subject is the character dancer and early filmmaker Alexander Shirayev (1867-1941), whose name you may know as one of the memoirists quoted by musicologist Roland John Wiley in his biographical study of Lev Ivanov, whom Shirayev knew during his years with the Maryinsky Ballet. Or perhaps you recognize Shirayev’s name from his later years as a teacher in London: many of his pupils went into Pavlova’s company. Balanchine fans may know his name, too, as the dancer who originated the hoop dance of “the buffoon” in the original production of “The Nutcracker”—the role that George Balanchine, himself, performed as a student at the Imperial School and made the basis for the Candy Cane variation in the divertissement of his own production of that ballet. For a different, Ukrainian-flavored character variation, by Marius Petipa, whose work Shirayev performed for decades, he invented what might be called a “half-Nicholas,” in which he jumped high and landed on the floor with one leg extended while the other was folded up in a crouch; “Late Premiere” has footage of him accomplishing this. Shirayev was respected as a character dancer and a teacher, and, while at the Maryinsky, he was devoted to Petipa, to the extent that, as the film explains, when the ruthless theater administration plotted against the elderly choreographer in his last years, Shirayev quit the company rather than be part of what he saw as cruel harassment of a great and productive artist.

But there was more to Shirayev than dance virtuosity and integrity: he was also a self-taught filmmaker and an animator of exquisite vision and painstaking craft. At the end of the 19th century, he began to film his family and folk dancers throughout Russia and also to develop an ingenious process of animated drawings of dancers dancing, with commentary below, on rolls of paper that would, when the rolls were slowly turned and projected, show the choreography of a dance with exactitude and clarity. (The “Buffoon” solo from “The Nutcracker” is preserved on one of those rolls and animated from beginning to end within “Late Premiere.”) As early as 1902, Shirayev offered the Maryinsky to film the outstanding performances of character dances in the ballet’s repertory, particularly the works of Petipa, where one could find ballerinas and principal male dancers performing the character variations for the pure pleasure of dancing them. The theater administration turned down Shirayev’s offer, saying that the still photographs of dancers on the office walls were sufficient documentation. This led him to develop an extraordinary group of films on his own, in which tiny models of dancers were animated, movement by movement, within a miniature theater, so that, when he filmed them frame by frame, the results were puppet ballets so persuasively lifelike and artistically authentic that one wonders if Shirayev was channeling Kleist. Some of the films apparently required him to make nearly 8,000 trips between the camera and the toy theater to change the figures’ positions. (His family spoke of him wearing holes in the parquet floor.) Shirayev also produced films of miniature fantasy ballets for insects and animals that anticipated similar imagery from the Parisian Surrealists by a decade. And he continued to film real, live dancers, too: his service to ballet and character dancing as a preservationist cannot be adequately acknowledged. Don’t miss this.

A second fine program is built around dance critic and historian Marilyn Hunt’s 2004 “Dancing from the Heart.” The subject is the dances to the sun, to animals, and other natural forces that are practiced by the Pueblo Indian tribes of New Mexico. Andrew Garcia, who oversees the rehearsal and preparation of such dances, is the narrating guide. Hunt has been working on this film for years, and her brilliantly clear and telling film passages of the dances and their physical and cultural contexts have been beautifully shaped by the editing of Girish Bhargava, already well known to dance-film fans for his work at WNET and on “Dance in America.” As Garcia explains patiently in the film, every step, every color and symbol and carpentered corner on the handsticks and headdresses, means something related to blessings by and to the natural world. Furthermore, like the dances performed by the children of Bali (whose every gesture, step, and eye movement is based on observation from animals and other natural elements), these are not intended primarily as entertainment: they are prayers, and they require complete sincerity—that is, “dancing from the heart.” Among the short films on the same program is Clara van Gool’s 1998 “Zikr,” an intense, four-minute document of keening and shout-singing Chechnyan men, in Western garb, performing the ancient, ceremonial chain dance of the title before the wreck of a (presumably war-ravaged) building. After watching these devoted and affecting films, it is good to take a break before looking at any others.

—“The Gods of Bali” and “Children’s Dance at Arma” will be screened again on Friday, 21 Jan., at 1 p.m.
—“The Red Shoes”: Friday, 21 Jan., 6:15 p.m.
—“Carmen and Geoffrey”: Friday, 14 Jan., 1 p.m.
—“Late Premiere”: Friday, 14 Jan., 4 p.m.; Saturday, 15 Jan., 1 p.m.; also at Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza, Tuesday, 18 Jan., 7 p.m.
—“Dancing from the Heart” and “Zikr”: Friday, 21 Jan., 3:30 p.m.


The dancer and dance historian Katy Matheson was a familiar face and a warm presence at many previous editions of the Dance on Camera Festival, where, both intellectually curious and magnanimous toward a range of artists, she would sit through every film of every program. Tall, with sparkling eyes and a lovely smile, Katy was open to dancing of all kinds—from programs by beginning choreographers that took place in tiny apartments because there was no money to rent a theater, to the seasons of the New York City Ballet and ABT. Her special area of interest was improvisation; and her essay on the subject in the “International Encyclopedia of Dance” is representative of her expansive approach. It covers improvisation in Western dance from the Renaissance through the Judson Church dancers, with a sizable section on improvisation in classical ballet and modern dance; and it also discusses Indian dance and Flamenco. Katy reported on many topics of current interest for “Dance Magazine” in the 1980’s and early 90’s, where she was an associate editor. Among them was an interview that she and Marilyn Hunt conducted with Nikita Dolgushin about his teaching at the Choreographic Institute of the Leningrad State Conservatory. She also wrote on the 19th-century New York pleasure garden Niblo’s Garden for a volume published in 1998 by the Theatre Library Association.

Two of Katy’s essays—on Laura Dean and David Gordon—are included in “Fifty Contemporary Choreographers,” edited by Martha Bremser (Routledge). For the second edition of Selma Jeanne Cohen’s landmark anthology, “Dance as a Theatre Art” (Dance Horizons), Katy edited a new section, “Breaking Boundaries,” with excerpts of writing and interviews by Steve Paxton, Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Pina Bausch, Garth Fagan, and Mark Morris. She also conducted oral history interviews for the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: some were with composers and musicians who had collaborated with Martha Graham (Carlos Surinach, Norman Dello Joio, Stanley Sussman, Vincent Persichetti), some were with dancers from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (Charles Dickson, Nathalie Krassovska, Oleg Tupine, Tatiana Leskova), one was with the Graham dancer Jean Nuchtern, and one was with Victor Jessen, the filmmaker.

Katy, who grew up in the 1950’s in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., had studied dressage as well as dancing: she had a strong background of physical discipline, which helped her, I think, to hang onto life as long as she possibly could. She came to New York in the 1960’s hoping to dance—and she did for a while. The Dance Division has at least one video of her performing with Kenneth King’s group in his 1976 “Battery: A Tribute to Susanne K. Langer.” She seems to have known everyone and appreciated everyone, and she didn’t forget people. About a month ago, she asked on the phone if I remembered the late Clint Smith, the wonderful ballet-trained stilt dancer who, as part of the duo Friends in High Places, in the 1980’s and early 90’s performed pas de deux for himself and his partner, Coralie Romanyshyn, among them a “Nutcracker” pas de deux, choreographed by Oleg Briansky, which they danced on three-foot-high stilts. The balletic pas for stilt dancers in Julie Taymor’s spectacular new production of “The Magic Flute” is something that Katy would have enjoyed very much (she had a friend, another stilt dancer, in the production), and if the cancer she’d been battling valiantly for a decade hadn’t laid her low this past fall, I’m sure that she’d have been in attendance at the Met.

Katy Matheson died this past weekend at her home in Manhattan.

Volume 3, No. 2
January 10, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Mindy Aloff


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