Technology has done a great deal to improve the quality of filmed dance. Cameras and lights become more sophisticated every day. Still, dance is one of the most complex subjects to film. It uses space voraciously, and its sculptural nature is difficult to capture. Some of the early Dance in America films, while valuable as historical records, are static. Ironically, now that technology makes more interesting work possible, there is less funding for it. Budget cutbacks have slashed the series output from four productions a year to two. Kinberg is currently working on a film about Jacques d'Amboise, a former New York City Ballet star who founded a pioneering program for inner-city youth. Called Who's Dancin' Now? it tracks the children portrayed in her He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin', showing how their early experience with d'Amboise affected their lives. The only other Dance in America film currently scheduled for the 1999-2000 season is a presentation of American Ballet Theatre's Le Corsaire, choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev and directed by Diamond, a showcase for the company's brilliant male dancers: Ethan Stiefel, Angel Corella, Vladimir Malakhov and Joaquin De Luz.
Almost all the dance films made for PBS have a point of view--of the choreographer, artistic director or dancers (or all of them), who act as guides. The historical and anecdotal material they offer give the proceedings a context. Anne Bell and Deborah Dickson's Elusive Muse, about the ballerina Suzanne Farrell--whose first partner was d'Amboise--beautifully captures her art and character. We hear Farrell talk about her childhood in Cincinnati and her dreams of dancing for the New York City Ballet. Then, the film cuts to some early family photographs of Farrell with her sister and a revealing interview with their mother, who clearly would have done anything to get young Suzie on stage. It helps that Farrell is so forthcoming about her intense relationship with Balanchine--a creatively productive idyll, without sex, that Farrell ended when she decided not to be another of his wife-muses. The directors juxtapose Farrell's revelations with clips of her performances and scenes of her teaching. It helps us make the connection between the woman we see offstage with the artist she is onstage.
The Wrecker's Ball (1996), another film directed by Diamond, does not have a point of view and suffers accordingly. It presents a series of Paul Taylor's lighthearted and ironic pieces, among them Company B and Funny Papers, to songs recorded by the Andrews Sisters and other novelty tunes from the forties through the sixties. For inexplicable reasons, the set has been crowded with stools and tables--perhaps to make it look like an old-fashioned dance hall--and the camera dives and jumps around the objects and dancers with no clear purpose. At one point, rain engulfs them all. Even a die-hard Paul Taylor enthusiast would have trouble grasping the point of all the activity. It appears that Diamond, in an attempt to avoid being static, went wildly in the opposite direction. But Dancemaker proves how much an artist can develop in only a few years.
Naturally, in series like Dance in America and Great Performances quality is going to vary. Moreover, with funding so elusive, the subjects tend to be chosen with the widest possible audience in mind. Consequently, big-name dancers and mainstream companies get top priority, e.g., Nureyev and the Joffrey Ballet in tribute to Nijinsky; Taylor; Mark Morris; Martha Graham; the New York City Ballet and Balanchine; and American Ballet Theatre. However, the series did include Pilobolus Dance Theatre before the acrobatic company became so popular, and Garth Fagan's Griot New York, which portrays the city life of African-Americans in mythic terms.
PBS is not the only TV venue for dance, though it's the only one that comes to most viewers' minds. Commercial dance we see regularly, whether we are aware of it or not--The Drew Carey Show employs Keith Young as full-time choreographer, for example. Experimental dance is primarily on view only at film festivals. Fortunately, a good deal of dance film is now in the safekeeping of libraries. In April Larry Billman, author of Film Choreographers and Dance Directors, will open the Academy of Dance on Film in Hollywood, a library devoted to the history of filmed dance. It should complement the Dance Collection at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York and the film archives at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina. "I want my library to be all-inclusive," explained Billman. "The Full Monty belongs on record as much as the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers opus and Martha Graham."
The Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center attempted to present the best of experimental dance films--the potentially mainstream Dancemaker was an exception. "Dance itself is a marginal art form and certainly dance film and video makers must be considered on the margins of the margin," said director Douglas Rosenberg in an introductory lecture for a course he teaches at the University of Wisconsin. For whom, then, are these marginal films intended? Rosenberg's answer is that other countries, particularly Canada, have a film culture eager for such experimental works. In the United States they are likely to fall into oblivion, but this doesn't dampen the spirits of their creators. "My goal is to create dance that can only exist in film form," Jodi Kaplan said. "It is choreography solely for the screen." Filled with swirling images of women, her Immersion, filmed under water, is more visual poetry than dance.
There is nothing marginal about Rosenberg's My Grandfather Dances, which he made with choreographer Anna Halprin. Halprin retired as a performer many years ago, but Rosenberg urged her to tell a story about her grandfather, who was a cantor. As she speaks of him and the love he lavished on her, she moves her arms, body and head in a symphony of emotion. Her words and gestures mesh seamlessly. One's understanding of the power of dance and its ability to convey our profoundest feelings is increased tenfold in watching so eloquent a film. We may no longer have sunny musicals to seduce us into loving dance, but those as accomplished as Diamond, Selby and Rosenberg can make films that just as effectively enthrall us.