writers on dancing


Dance on Camera

Dance on Camera Festival
Walter Reade Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
January 2006

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2006 by Susan Reiter

One certainly can’t fault the range of dance films assembled for this annual event, co-presented by the Dance Films Association and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, at the intimate and comfortable Walter Reade Theater. The first four days (January 4 – 7) of the festival—further screenings are scheduled for January 10, 13 and 14—included several feature-length films as well as shorts as brief as ten minutes. The seven programs I caught—exactly half of the festival’s generous offering of 14—were heavy on documentaries, but within that category there were a wide range of approaches, from the meticulously chronological to the impressionistic.

Although it was not completely unfamiliar, the full 90-minute version of Charles Atlas’ “Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance,” was certainly a major highlight. A 60-minute version had been seen on PBS in 2000, but this full-length version that Atlas had envisioned was receiving its first local public screening. Atlas, a longtime Cunningham collaborator on video projects, captures the humor, spontaneity, brilliance and ground-breaking originality of this ever-prolific master. He includes ample footage of Cunningham dancing, from very early solos through the 1980s, making sure we understand the unique dancing body from which his vast repertory sprang. Cunningham himself is unfailingly engaging, and often whimsical, in interview segments, discussing influences on, and impetus for, some of his dances (he talks about how he translated his delight at watching stones skip over a lake into some of the movement in “Pond Way”) and reminiscing about the significance of his first teacher, with her vaudeville and showbiz background.

There is extensive footage of him in rehearsal with Mikhail Baryshnikov for their 1999 “Occasion Piece.”  What a privilege to see these two devoted, serious artists at work, delving into the essence of movement. In the array of performance and rehearsal footage, we see a parade of Cunningham dancers from various generations—Remy Charlip, Carolyn Brown, Valda Setterfield, Meg Harper, Chris Komar—and several also speak on camera, as do critics Joan Acocella, Deborah Jowitt and Sally Sommer. The film’s vivid, artfully edited 90 minutes leave one feeling awe at the profound talent and unpredictable genius of this man, and an appreciation for being alive in the era when he has been a leading figure in dance. Hopefully, this vivid, insightful documentary will be permanently available in all possible forms.

"A Breath of Pina Bausch,” a 40-minute film (receiving its U.S. premiere) by Turkish director Huseyin Karabey, puts the camera in an Istanbul studio where Bausch and her dancers develop the material for her 2003 work “Breath.” It is an almost completely non-verbal experience. The dancers work out solo or duet (and very occasional ensemble) passages on their own, then show them to Bausch, who sits behind a table, cigarette permanently in hand, taking notes. She acknowledges their little movement demonstrations with a cryptic smile or the occasional doubtful expression. As the movement phrases take shape, the film cuts to the finished performance, so we see how Bausch has incorporated the raw material and how the setting, costumes and music enhance a work of sweet sensuality and good-natured cooperation. What we don’t see if the intermediary phase—how Bausch edited, ordered and shaped the dance. Presumably, there were times when she left that table and was in the midst of the dancers, but that is not shown, Nor is it clear why this particular work is being created and introduced in Istanbul. Bausch is known for having created works as a result of field trip-like ventures to unfamiliar countries or cities. But the dancers’ time in Istanbul, as far as we see, is confined to a studio that could just as well be anywhere. The film’s main value is as an opportunity to get to know the dancers, to see them as playful, lighthearted, yet deeply committed, and to sense the intense mutual trust within that studio.

“Back to Kinshasa,” another U.S. premiere shown on the same program, is a stylish introduction to the Zaire-born dancer/choreographer Faustin Linyekula. Based in Paris, his work deals with the contrasts and conflicts between his origins and his life in France, and he himself speaks thoughtfully on camera of his disconnect with the continent where he was born. The film then follows him as he travels to Congo (as Zaire is now named) and working with a small ensemble to create a work that reflects the very different world he discovers there. Excerpts from Linyekula is a powerful, fascinating dancer, and the intriguing excerpts from his work make one hope he will have more opportunity to be seen in this country.

Completing this program was “Valse Wals,” so far the festival’s most impressive example of the dance film as a seamlessly blended form, where the camera has its own brilliant choreography. In this hour-long film by Mark de Cloe, two not-so-young, dramatically gifted dancers, Ria Marks and Titus Tiel, manage a seamless blend of dancing and acting as they endure a tempestuous, often brutal relationship that is launched in a seedy seaside tavern, where the two make an earthly sensual connection amid the small wooden tables and empty glasses. A simultaneously witty and despondent second scene finds them trapped on a small sofa, in front of a TV, increasingly unable to fend off tedium and longing for escape, which finally comes. The more fantastical final sequence has the duo, now worn with age, wandering with shopping bags down an apocalyptic streetscape, taking refuge on an abandoned metal bedframe which becomes their magical chariot, carrying them to the edge of the ocean. Marks has a wistful, proletarian beauty, while Tiel retains an edge of danger even as he loses his initial roughness. The riveting portions of “Valse Wals” are so strong that one wishes it had been more tightly edited, to more fully sustain its blend of Beckettian despair and flamboyant fantasy.

Ulrik Wivel, a former Royal Danish Ballet (and New York City Ballet) dancer turned filmmaker, continues his explorations of how the camera can interact with the art form in “Jeg Dig Elsker,” an impressionistic examination of the three main characters in Bournonville’s “La Sylphide.” The title translates as “I You Love,” which is the verbal equivalent of one of the most essential  bits of mime in 19th-century ballet. Wivel focuses on Nikolai Hubbe working in the studio with RDB dancers Mads Blangstrup (James), Gudrun Boesen (the Sylph) and Lis Jeppesen (Madge) for the company’s current staging of the ballet. He deftly intercuts scenes of Hubbe demonstrating and explaining the conflicts and dramas between the characters —giving them brief but enlightening direction about the motivations—with the same scenes in performance. But we hear contemporary, moody music instead of the actual Lovenskjold score.

What makes the 24-minute film less a documentary than a soul-searching mood piece is the introspective narration (heard in Danish but well subtitled) that launches and frames the ballet scenes. Some of it gets a bit ponderous, and the occasional scenes of Hubbe in his hotel room— smoking, staring into the bathroom mirror—feel intrusive and somewhat forced. But the opportunity to watch Boesen and Blangstrup—two exemplary Bournonville dancers— assimilating the choreography and deepening their interpretations, is invaluable, and the cinematography is stunning throughout.

“Phoenix Dance,” also a U.S. premiere, focuses on the late Homer Avila, a modern dancer/choreographer who was well-known in the dance community and much admired in the New York dance community. He found his own unique, powerful way of continuing to dance after having his right leg and hip amputated due to cancer, and the film reveals how amazingly comfortable he became standing on one leg. Filmmaker Karina Epperlein’s primary focus is on Avila’s collaboration with San Francisco choreographer Alonzo King, who creates a duet for him and Andrea Flores. The camera work adds to the haunting poignancy and sheer beauty of their work together, and is a worthy tribute to Avila’s dedication to his art and his brave explorations into unknown territory.

While “Phoenix Dance” documents a mature artist transforming a life-threatening illness into a positive means of communication, Virginia Brooks’ triumphant “The Nutcracker Family: Behind the Magic” takes us behind the scenes to follow the dozens of very young dancers from the School of American Ballet as they prepare for new York City Ballet’s 2003 performances of George Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.” We see how adorable and also how serious they are—giddy when they are first taken to the costume shop to be transformed into soldiers or angels, yet attentive and dedicated as Garielle Whittle puts them through their paces. It is impressive to see how detailed she is in giving them corrections; while she is never harsh with them, she expects the same level of concentration and hard work she would from adult dancers, and they respond in kind. We get to know the charming individual dancers in the featured roles, but we also get to see how a number such as the Polichinelles or Hoops (Candy Canes) is assembled. As the segments become more complete, Brooks intercuts bits of the same sections with footage from a 1970 dress rehearsal, with Balanchine occasionally visible giving corrections. “The Nutcracker Family” presents its material without frills, allowing you to watch how an elaborate production takes shape, and it only adds to the mystique and durability of Balanchine’s landmark production.

In contrast to these youngsters, there are the Silver Belles, a group of vibrant, octogenarian (and even nonagenarian) ladies who still perform rhythm tap numbers to cheering audiences. They are the stars of heather Lyn MacDonald’s leisurely, increasingly gripping documentary, “Been Rich All My Life.” We get to know these five women, with their astonishing histories and lively tales of years in the chorus at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. We learn how the chorus girls chipped in to buy headliner Ella Fitzgerald her first evening gown, so she would have appropriate performance attire, and how the Apollo dancers went on strike in 1940 for rehearsal pay and more equitable wages, and hear about the indignities of performing on USO tours during World War II while confronting segregation at every turn. These remarkable women cheerfully ride several buses and subways to get to their rehearsals, and share a unique camaraderie that comes across beautifully throughout their scenes of rehearsing, performing and reminiscing.

Volume 4, No. 2
January 16, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



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last updated on January 16, 2006