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.
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.