Thursday, October 20, 2016

Step By Step: Putting It Together

Many children are told that "If you work really hard, you can grow up to be anything --- even the President of the United States!" While the goal is admirable, the chances of success are infinitesimal. With only one job opening every four years and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting 3,999,386 infants born in 2010. the odds are not in any one person's favor.

Nevertheless, children develop passions which help to shape their dreams. Egged on by their parents' agendas, some dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, or vaudeville stars ("Sing out, Louise!"). Others see themselves as astronauts, rappers, movie stars, or football players.

For those who fixate on a career in the arts, the odds against a successful performing career are staggering (as is the potential for a lifetime of rejection). So many physical, emotional, and financial obstacles lie in their path that it takes a very special kind of ego and drive to believe in one's self and rise above a sea of negativity.

While the culling of the herd is intense and often merciless, many aspirants manage to channel their creativity into nonperforming careers. Whether they find work in arts administration, teaching, graphic design, or as business consultants, the skills they have developed (coupled with the insights that come from an artistic mind) continue to open doors for them where others might have been completely flustered by failure.

Two documentaries screened at the 2016 San Francisco Dance Film Festival focused on the curiously claustrophobic world of ballet. One is a dramatic recreation of an historical moment which not only changed one dancer's life but had major international ramifications. The other focuses on a particular kind of discrimination which has plagued the art form throughout its history.

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In recent decades, many documentaries have woven archival footage and photographs with dramatic re-enactments of historical events in order to strengthen their storytelling. Often produced as made-for-television docudramas, these films include actors appearing as the talking heads of historical authority figures or witnesses to events long past. Documentaries about the sinkings of famous ocean liners such as the RMS Lusitania, SS Andrea Doria, HMHS Britannic, and RMS Titanic (as well as the sinking of the Nazi battleship, Bismarck) routinely air on cable history channels.

Written and directed by Richard Curson SmithRudolf Nureyev -- Dance to Freedom is a docudrama that aired on BBC television with Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer Artem Ovcharenko cast as Rudolf Nureyev and a variety of Russian actors and dancers in supporting roles. According to the film's promotional blurb:
"Dance, espionage and passion come together in this powerful and exciting docudrama that tells the extraordinary story of how Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in 1961 and became a living legend. A dramatized documentary, it is a tale of love and betrayal, ballet and espionage; political intrigue and the triumph of artistic expression. Uniquely told in a mix of revelatory testimony, tense dramatization, and spectacular dance performance of Nureyev’s roles, offering an original interpretation of why the defection took place and is a timely reminder of what happens when art and politics collide."
Artem Ovcharenko as Rudolf Nureyev
"The film shows a thrilling recreation of the events in the four months that led to Nureyev's defection at Paris's Le Bourget airport on June 16th 1961, helping to change the course of the Cold War. It shows how those events transformed not only Nureyev's personal fame and fortune, but those of everyone else around him.  First-hand accounts are provided by those who were on the fateful tour with Nureyev, including former prima ballerina Alla Osipenko and rival male soloist Sergei Vikulov. Two principal figures instrumental in Nureyev's defection -- his intimate friend Clara Saint and the dancer and choreographer Pierre Lacotte -- also provide their version of these world-changing events."
Artem Ovcharenko as Rudolf Nureyev making his famous
leap to freedom in Le Bourget Airport in Paris on June 16, 1961

Smith's docudrama does a fine job of describing the festering conditions which propelled Nureyev to defect.
  • As an ambitious young man, Nureyev was keenly aware that his future in the Kirov Ballet was subject to political maneuvering backstage and could easily be stifled by people who resented him.
  • Because of his volatile temper, rebellious behavior, and frequent rudeness, Nureyev posed a political risk if allowed to go on tour outside of the Soviet Union.
  • Whether he was bisexual or gay, Nureyev's flamboyant personality could easily draw the wrong kind of attention from foreign media.
  • Nureyev aggressively sought out new friends during his travels who could take him away from his fellow dancers so that he could experience life through their eyes.
  • Nureyev's curiosity about life outside of the Soviet Union further inflamed his desire for the kind of artistic freedom which would allow him to be an international guest soloist who could lead a life free from government surveillance.
A young Nureyev dancing in performing in
Flower Festival at Genzano (Photo by: Fred Fehl)

At the time of his defection, Nureyev could not have imagined an internationally famous partnership with Margot Fonteyn (the two dancers were arrested on the rooftop of a Haight-Ashbury building in San Francisco on July 11, 1967) or starring as Rudolf Valentino in a biopic about the famous silent film star.  I sincerely doubt that, back in 1961, the ambitious young dancer could have dreamt that he would one day become the director of the Paris Opera Ballet, choreograph full-length versions of The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère, Romeo and Juliet, and tour in The King and I. Nor could he have imagined reaching huge audiences via television while dancing in a ballet spoof (Swine Lake) on The Muppet Show or performing "I've Got Your Number" (from 1962's Little Me) with Julie Andrews.

While Smith's docudrama captures Nureyev's determination to maintain control over his fate (especially when dealing with the KGB), it also shows how his ego could grate on others, particularly in the scene where he tells a Russian bureaucrat on tour with the ballet "What makes us different is that you could never do what I do!" Although Ovcharenko is an excellent dancer with a striking facial resemblance to Nureyev, one never gets the sense of animal magnetism and a fire burning within that was part of the essence of Nureyev. Here's the trailer:

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If, as they say, "timing is everything," Frances McElroy's new documentary, Black Ballerina, may be riding the cusp of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time that a documentary is in the works about the infamous Green Book (a travel guide that told African Americans about safe places where they could dine and secure accommodations while traveling around the United States), McElroy's documentary shows how so many aspiring black ballerinas have had their dreams crushed by ballet's traditionalists. Raven Wilkinson (who became the first African American woman to dance with a major ballet company in 1955 when she signed a contract with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) recalled looking out the window of her hotel room in Montgomery, Alabama while the city was hosting a Ku Klux Klan convention.

While black women have achieved great success in the opera world during the past 50 years, ballet has been far less welcoming. Despite the numbers of young girls who flock to ballet classes, when the time comes to seek employment with a ballet company, many black dancers run up against a solid wall of discrimination because of their skin color or the fact that their bodies do not conform to ballet's rigid conventions.

Delores Browne

Black Ballerina tells the stories of black women from multiple generations, such as Delores Browne (a principal with the short-lived American Negro Ballet who turned to teaching) and three young black women -- Ashley Murphy (who performs with Dance Theatre of Harlem), Amanda Smith (a company member of the Charlotte Ballet), and Bianca Fabré (a ballet student who eventually abandoned her dream) -- who have been inspired by the success of African American artists like Misty Copeland, Olivia Boisson, and Kimberly Braylock,

Whereas the opera world has welcomed far more black women than black men, there's no question that ballet's traditions as a European art form have kept the corps de ballet (as well as most principal roles) off limits to aspiring black ballerinas. As one interviewee notes: if a ballet company has a black artist, it's usually a male dancer rather than a woman.

The stories told in this film by black ballerinas of various generations prove how far the ballet world needs to change with regard to culturally-imposed standards of beauty. McElroy's's documentary challenges the artistic directors and gatekeepers at America's ballet companies to make more informed decisions that can provide greater opportunities for women of color, change the racial composition of classical dance companies, and motivate their boards of directors to help develop a more racially diverse audience for ballet. As Delores Browne warns: “Don’t you think for a minute if there were people of color in numbers -- not tokens -- on that stage, that there wouldn’t be bottoms in those seats. If you want to think of it from a purely economic point, you have an untapped audience.”

To its credit, Black Ballerina stresses that black dancers should not automatically be shunted into modern dance if their true goal is to perform ballet. The film also gives voice to former dancers like Joan Myers Brown (the founder of Philadelphia's Philadanco) and Virginia Johnson (a former ballerina who is now current Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem), which helps young ballerinas understand that there is a potential second career available to them as a dance teacher once their performing career has ended. To purchase a DVD of Black Ballerina, click here. Here's the trailer:

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