I grew up on dance films, although they weren't known as such; they were called musicals. Brigadoon, a farfetched Scottish fantasy made in 1954 with Gene Kelly, and Daddy Long Legs, which came along a year later, starring Fred Astaire, were my favorites. Both propelled me into a magical world where deepest feelings were expressed in movement and song. To me, this seemed a more meaningful--and more natural--way of communicating than through words. From movies like these, I graduated to the film versions of the Broadway hits The King and I and Oklahoma, the work of the legendary choreographers Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. Then, in the sixties, Robbins created West Side Story to a score by Leonard Bernstein and revolutionized the genre. He gave street dance stature as a viable art form, inspiring such films as Flashdance, Footloose and Dirty Dancing.
It wasn't a big leap from film to live performance and tickets to England's Royal Ballet when it came to New York. At the time, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were dancing with the company--a most fortuitous circumstance. These were halcyon days for dance, with the Joffrey Ballet adding to the artistic ferment, along with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet. What started me thinking about the powerful effect of those early musicals was seeing Matthew Diamond's documentary Dancemaker, in its own way a film just as enchanting. Shown in December at the Annual Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center, it opened at the Film Forum in New York on March 3 and is scheduled to appear on March 12 in Los Angeles and April 2 in San Francisco. (It was also nominated for an Academy Award in the best documentary category.) Theaters in other major cities are now being booked as well.
Concert dance, in fact, needs to find a way back into the heart of the public, and film and television can go a long way toward dispelling its image as an obscure and elite art (an image unfortunately fostered by many of its past practitioners). Diamond lets us see exactly what goes into dance by documenting the inner workings of the Paul Taylor Dance Company--the rehearsals, the details of management, the creative process and the personal crises and moments of exhilaration of Taylor and his dancers. By the time he films a performance, we have a keen understanding of what made it possible. His rich mix of images, history and anecdotes gives it resonance. A work like this--with such general audience appeal--is encouraging.
"I'm an entertainer," said Diamond, who was a choreographer and a dancer before he became a filmmaker, "so my main intention was for audiences to have a rip-roaring good time. I saw the film as a story about what human beings go through to make art--the mundane and the dramatic. People usually regard dancers from a distance, simply as trained professionals. That attitude promotes distance from the art as well." Clearly, his subjects felt comfortable with him. They never appear self-conscious or self-aggrandizing, even when talking about their private lives. Taylor is by turns funny, severe, serious and fervent. Diamond followed the company on tour to India, visited dancers in their homes and attended marketing meetings. Thanks to the sensitive photography of Tom Hurwitz, we are never stuck in one place--there is always a sense of movement, even when no dance is on camera. When it is, it has the quality of live performance; the sense of immediacy is electric. How did he achieve this quality? "You have to take dance and reinterpret it for the screen," Diamond explained, adding, "Years of doing sitcoms hasn't hurt."
Those interested in dance on film but unable to see Dancemaker in the coming months should watch for any screening of producer Margaret Selby's Emmy award-winning Two By Dove, about the modern dance choreographer Ulysses Dove, which succeeds for the same reasons as Diamond's film. Although she set out to capture the character of only one man rather than an entire company, Selby provides the viewer with enough information about the choreographic process to make the performances in the film profoundly affecting. For instance, Dove says that memories of his grandmother in church motivated his early work Vespers, and we can recognize her importance in his life. Shortly thereafter, we see a performance of the ballet, which opens with several women sitting rigidly upright on chairs, as if in church. We immediately know where we are, and we soon know why the piece packs so much emotion.
A live performance shouldn't need explanation, but most filmed dance benefits from it--nothing didactic but visual and dramatic material that colors the proceedings. Flamenco Women, a film by Mike Figgis (also shown at the Dance on Camera Festival), would have been much more engaging if viewers weren't simply thrown into a rehearsal. It very quickly becomes tedious seeing one dancer after another go through routines--even for an avid fan of flamenco. Figgis gives us no way to connect with them. In a published interview, he said, "I dislike the middlebrow process of explaining art. I didn't want to do a cerebral analysis of flamenco. The important thing is what's happening." Well, I don't think that's all there is to it. For good flamenco on film, I recommend Carlos Saura's eloquent documentary Flamenco and his Blood Wedding (based on the García Lorca play) and Carmen, both made in the eighties.
Since many people will never see dance live on stage, what is produced for film affects the overall health of the art form. That's why Figgis's disparaging of films that explain dance seems snobbish and shortsighted. The PBS television series Dance in America and Great Performances have probably presented the most widely viewed examples of filmed dance in the United States, but there is also a vast underground of other dance films that are primarily screened only at film festivals. Moreover, dance is all around us in other venues: Many West Coast choreographers spend their entire careers creating dance sequences for television shows and music videos. (While my generation usually got its first taste of dance at the movies, most young dancers and choreographers today get it on television.) Desmond Richardson, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, told me that only by seeing Great Performances did he come to realize one could make a profession of dance.
Jac Venza, executive producer of Great Performances at New York's WNET, helped pioneer the presentation of dance on television with Dance in America in 1976. In the fifties, he told me recently, serious choreographers were usually only asked to do fillers in variety shows. And even then, producers showed little respect for the continuity of their work or sympathy for the physical needs of the dancers--for instance, expecting them to perform on concrete rather than wooden floors, which is murder for their bodies. "They built up quite an animosity to television," he said, "and it took a lot of convincing when I started Dance in America to get people like Balanchine and Paul Taylor to participate." The breakthrough came when WNET began renting studios just for dance in Nashville in 1976. Balanchine not only agreed to take part; he fell in love with the process.
WNET senior producer Judy Kinberg has been with Dance in America since its inception, witnessing striking changes in attitudes toward the series over its twenty-three-year history. "At the beginning artistic directors feared that television would cut into their box offices," she said. "It took Robert Joffrey, eager to get historically important works documented, to take the first step." In fact, the success of the Joffrey film increased attendance at the company's live performances and brought people into the theater who had never bought a dance ticket before.