Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hungry For The Spotlight

The acting bug seems to be corrupting children at a younger age these days. Whether it's as a result of watching scripted shows like Glee and Smash or reality television contests like The Voice and America's Got Talent, children see teenagers in the spotlight getting lots of acclaim and think "I want that, too!"

Craving such attention, of course, requires having the kind of personality, charisma, or talent to merit other people investing time and money in helping you to succeed. Parents and coaches can do only so much.

What many people forget is that making art is all about process. While most people approach art from a consumer's standpoint, the people who create art are constantly working to hone their craft, come up with new ideas, and broaden their appeal.

Many people have listened to Barbra Streisand's rendition of "Putting It Together" from 1984's Sunday in the Park With George and seen the song as a reflection of her perfectionism. But when seen in its original context, "Putting It Together" becomes an extremely cynical lesson in tough love for aspiring artists. Here's Mandy Patinkin in the telecast of the original Broadway production, explaining why "art isn't easy."

Every year, San Francisco's DocFest includes several films about performers and artists which cut through the usual industry bullshit and go behind the scenes to show what the actual process of creating art looks like. This year, three exceptional documentaries examine the career paths of aspiring talents at different stages of their professional lives.

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Directed by Scott Hamilton KennedyFame High focuses on students at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) as their initial dreams of a career in the performing arts collide with the brutal reality of the discipline required to maintain a professional lifestyle.
  • Brittany Hayes is a tall, blonde harpist from Wisconsin whose parents are willing to undergo a temporary separation so that her mother can live with her in Los Angeles. Her rebelliousness causes Brittany to spend more time auditioning than focusing on her studies. When she comes close to flunking out of school, her family's crisis goes takes Brittany a surprising direction.
  • Red-headed Ruby is a pretentious young woman whose parents are in show business.  Ruby instinctively feels that she really needs to sacrifice more for her art. When her audition for a show at the Mark Taper Forum lands her a well-paying job as an understudy, Ruby grows to resent the time spent waiting around backstage that interferes with maintaining her friendships at school.
  • Grace Song is a Korean-American ballet student whose career goals are radically different from those of her parents (Grace's mother and grandmother underwent arranged marriages). As a result of her family's strict work ethic and traditional values, she is forced to break up with a talented and exciting African American boyfriend because her family insists that she concentrate on her school work (Grace eventually gets accepted to the Juilliard School and gets hired by the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance).
  • Zak is a talented jazz pianist whose father is intensely focused on landing his son performance gigs so that Zak can start earning money and building name recognition in jazz circles.
Poster art for Fame High

As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that the sheer desire to have a performing career is not easily enough. One's artistic goals can easily be sabotaged by raging hormones and teenage impulsiveness.  Whether cutting classes, sulking, failing to study, or losing focus, each student must learn how to concentrate on strengthening the artistic process that will help to develop their craft.

Throughout the film one sees glimpses of astonishing raw talents which may never make it to the professional level. Here's the trailer:

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Those who attend live performances of opera and ballet are used to seeing multiple artists tackle certain roles. The idea of having a "cover" or "alternate" performer makes perfect sense for roles that are incredibly difficult or for which there are numerous performers itching to get onstage.

Merwin Foard backstage at The Addams Family

Prior to a performance, the announcement of a cast change can send a groan of disappointment coursing through an audience. It can also generate an unexpected level of excitement within the theatre.
  • When Angela Lansbury took a week off from the original Broadway run of Mame, I bought a standing room ticket to see what her understudy, Sheila Smith, would be like in the title role.
  • When Gwen Verdon took ill and Liza Minnelli stepped in to take over the role of Roxie Hart in the original Broadway production of Chicago, Minnelli's fans swamped the box office.
Directed by Stephanie RiggsThe Standbys follows three Broadway actors who have been hired as standbys for lead performers.
Ben Crawford with Brian d'Arcy James at a Shrek cast party

Throughout the film, established Broadway stars such as David Hyde Pierce, Cheyenne Jackson, and Bebe Neuwirth (as well as critic Michael Riedel) talk about what it means to be a standby, a swing dancer, or to keep waiting for that one big chance without getting the recognition you crave. In the following clip, Aléna Watters performs Scott Alan's "If I Own Today" at the "At This Performance" understudy concert on April 20, 2009.

Riggs does a nice job of balancing the ambition and anguish of an understudy's professional and personal lives as Foard, Watters and Crawford compare notes on the various indignities they've suffered while waiting for their big break. The Standbys offers audiences a great opportunity to understand all the training that goes into being a standby or swing and appreciate the talent that is waiting for its big chance to break free.  Here's the trailer:

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While Fame High and The Standbys do a solid job of examining the challenges faced by aspiring performers, a new Danish documentary entitled Ballroom Dancer follows an established world-class performer through a vastly different kind of career crisis. Its subject is a handsome, muscular, passionate,  perfectionist suffering from a great deal of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.

In 2000, when he was just 24 years old, Vyacheslav "Slavik" Kryklyvyy and his partner, Joanna Leunis, became the international amateur champions in Latin American ballroom dancing. Ten years later, Slavik finds himself at a perilous crossroads.

Slavik Kryklyvyy

Older (and not necessarily wiser), he is hoping to get back into competitive ballroom dancing with a new partner, Anna Melnikova.  Anna is ten years younger, has a will of her own, and has a limit as to how much macho bullshit she is willing to tolerate from the brooding, hypercritical, narcissistic man who has been her lover, mentor, and dance partner.

As co-director Christian Bonke explains:
"She develops greatly throughout the film. In the beginning she’s a little chubby Russian girl. She's like a little girl who’s really looking up to this legend. She’s been watching him on television her whole life. Suddenly, she’s dancing with him and she’s a little starstruck. She develops a lot as a character (in some ways even more than Slavik). In the end she’s like a strong woman. 
Slavik reeks of drama. A Russian protagonist is really good in a documentary because they view life as something where there has to be sorrow, there has to be pain. It’s part of the whole thing.  I don’t think he’s as ashamed of those kinds of feelings as we would be. It’s also a cultural thing. Westerners we have a different take on feelings and sorrow than Russians do. We’re more superficial and pretend that 'Oh, everything’s good.'” 

Slavik and Anna

Co-directors Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed have certainly succeeded in their quest to make "a very seductive documentary." More than any dance documentary I can recall, their film captures the unraveling psychodrama of a control freak who can't have everything the way he wants it; a female dance partner who doesn't want to be his pawn, and how the looming possibility of failure gets on their nerves while they try to perfect their art.

The filmmakers' access to extremely intimate moments of tenderness, passion, insecurity, and bitter recriminations takes viewers of Ballroom Dancer inside a tortuous personal quest to remain competitive which plays out in rehearsal studios and dance competitions from Blackpool to Berlin and Bali; from Moscow to Hong Kong and Kiev. Anyone who is a fan of ballroom dancing won't want to miss this film. Here's the trailer:

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