Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dancing As Fast As They Can

As one of the most popular art forms created by man, dance has found its way into every culture. From primitive agricultural societies performing pagan fertility rites to Russian ballerinas appearing in classical ballets, from adolescent kids break dancing on sidewalks to Broadway professionals using Bob Fosse's signature "jazz hands," the sheer spectacle of the human body in motion --whether seen live or captured on film -- holds an incredible power to captivate, entertain, and be understood by audiences of every age and nationality. 

This spring's crop of dance films has been extremely rich and rewarding. It has brought us documentaries that focus on choreographers, dance traditions, the delicate act of recreating a moment in dance history, and the use of dance as a form of educational outreach.  When employed in a narrative format, tap dance has highlighted the critical role played by a dance tradition in the fortunes of an emotionally and financially depressed African-American family in Chicago.

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In March, PBS unveiled a long-awaited American Masters segment about the great American dancer/director/choreographer: Jerome Robbins. A legend in his time, Robbins made his mark on Broadway and in ballet circles, as well as in politics (when he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)  in the early 1950s, Robbins offered up the names of fellow artists in the hope that, by doing so, he could prevent his bisexuality from becoming a public scandal).

If Judy Kinberg's Something To Dance About suffers from anything at all, it suffers from a wealth of riches. Its subject had such a complex and conflicted life that one could easily have made three separate documentaries about Robbins without ever running out of material. A merciless perfectionist who could lash out and destroy a colleague's self-esteem with clinical precision, Robbins had many admirers who knew enough to steer clear of him when the clouds darkened.

A famous story reveals how once, during a stage rehearsal, as Robbins kept backing away from the cast -- until he finally fell into the orchestra pit -- not one person tried to stop him. When, during its lackluster tryout in Washington, D.C., Robbins was brought in as a show doctor for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the show's star, Zero Mostel, warned that he would work with Robbins but refused to eat with him.  Mostel had suffered the indignities of being blacklisted in Hollywood.  His co-star in Forum, Jack Gilford, had suffered a similar fate (after Robbins had identified Gilford's wife, Madeline, the character actor -- who would later became famous for his Lay's potato chip commercials -- and his wife were also blacklisted).

Kinberg's documentary doesn't skip over the wreckage Robbins left in his wake. People speak freely (now that he's dead) and don't mince words about his creative genius as well as his acid tongue.

Robbins worked with some of the giants of his day -- a virtual catalog of American musical theatre and ballet stars ranging from Stephen Sondheim and Ethel Merman to George Balanchine and Jacques D'Amboise, from Leonard Bernstein and Judy Holliday to Peter Martins and Violette Verdy.  As a result, this documentary is filled with insights from legendary figures from America's cultural landscape. 

Some of the archival footage is stunning. But what makes this documentary so very special is the opportunity to witness Robbins' work unfold onstage as well as in the rehearsal room, to be able to grasp the amazing scope of this man's achievements and, in retrospect, to appreciate his genius at using the vocabulary of dance to punctuate musical and dramatic moments on a stage. If you missed the original screening, you'll want to own or rent this two-hour documentary about a difficult man who truly did become one of America's masters.

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Several weeks ago, the San Francisco Women's Film Festival dedicated one of its programs to films about dance.  In a breathtakingly beautiful short entitled Baiana, filmmaker Mariya Prokopenko did a splendid job of combining film and dance to challenge an audience. If you would like an extra special treat, I urge you to read the filmmaker's notes on the experience of creating Baiana. 

Although it is only four minutes long, Baiana (which features dancers from Toronto's Ballet Creole, music by body percussion group Barbatuques (MCD/Brazil) and projections by Winston Hacking of Film Fort) is a knockout. A Russian-born filmmaker based in Toronto who has spent most of her professional background in camera and lighting work, Prokopenko notes that:
“The originality of this project lies in combination of influences by classic filmmakers such as Norman McLaren and Carlos Saura and an unconventional approach of photographing dance not as a stand-alone piece of art but as a component of kaleidoscopic image. I felt a powerful desire to make a film that plays with these common themes, but redefines the story of self-discovery in a powerful, kinetic, cinematic way. This film is an opportunity for me as an artist to combine all the non-verbal components and bring the story to the viewer by means of image and sound.”

The other short on the program was basically a teaser designed to bring in funding for a feature documentary entitled Who Is Paco Gomes?  The answer, of course, is that Gomes is a talented Brazilian-American choreographer who commutes between working with dancers in San Francisco and teaching dance to impoverished children living in rural Brazil.

The full-length feature film on this program was an African-American family drama written and directed by Stacie Hawkins entitled The Rise And Fall Of Miss Thang.

Although hardly a great movie (there is some really poor sound editing), this story about a young black woman whose father had been a great tap dancer has its moments. As its protagonist (Dee "Miss Thang" Miller), Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards carries much of the film's weight on her shoulders.  Dee is trying to cope with an unfaithful boyfriend, a depressed mother whose gambling addiction may cost them their home and business, her personal problems with anger management, and her unwillingness to spend the rest of her life as a beautician.

When an old childhood friend recognizes Dee and asks her to join his group of tap-dancing colleagues, she initially balks at the idea.  Although she is unwilling to deal with the emotional issues associated with her father's death, eventually Nicholas (Martin "Tre" Dumas) wins out. The film ends with Dee selling off her family's beauty salon, putting her efforts into producing a tap dance concert, and embracing a new dream.

The big treat this movie offers is a chance to simply watch her feet at work as she taps her way back to life.  If you love tap dance as much as I do, that footage will be worth sitting through the maudlin soap opera that provides the clumsy framework for The Rise and Fall of Miss Thang.

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Choreographers create new dances. But they need talented and intuitive dancers to bring their artistic visions to life. For many young girls, enrollment in ballet school helps to fulfill a mother's fantasy.  But for some, it actually leads to a professional career as a classical ballerina.

Bertrand Norman's beautiful 2006 documentary, Ballerina, follows the progress of five young women (Uliana Lopatkina, Evgenia Obraztsova, Alina Somova, Diana Vishneva, and Svetlana Zakharova) as they progress through the Mariinsky Ballet's training school, the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Although this film has not drawn as much attention as perhaps it should, it will undoubtedly be cherished by ballet fans far and wide.  

Whether concentrating on a teenager who has just graduated from ballet academy and entered into the Kirov as one of the youngest members of its corps de ballet, or examining how even one year as a professional performer has brought a new maturity to a young artist, the film is a gem. There is a wealth of class and rehearsal footage interspersed with clips of ballerinas in performance (seen from both the audience and the wings). 

Ballerina features numerous interviews with dancers talking about the challenges of getting back in shape after having a baby as well as learning how to extend their talents to the world of film. There is gorgeous footage of historic theaters, ranging from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersberg to the Palais Garnier in Paris. Underlying it all, there is a wealth of great music ranging from Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky and Prokofiev, from Minkus to Bizet to Fauré.

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Finally, we come to a film that is destined to become one of the titans of dance documentaries. It will be shown on Sunday evening, April 26 at the Castro Theater as part of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival and open in local theaters two weeks later. I'm referring, of course, to Every Little Step, which chronicles the casting process for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line

This will undoutedly become one of 2009's "must-see" films for culture vultures, and with good reason. Not only does it examine an invaluable piece of Broadway history, it allows audiences inside the intricacies of the casting process in a way that merely attending a performance of A Chorus Line never did. Chills will go up your spine as you watch Jason Tam nail his audition for the role of Paul.  Here's the trailer:

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