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.