May/June 2009 Journal

DANCE SCREEN SWEDEN – THE NEW MIX review by Shantal Parris Riley Dance Screen Sweden’s The New Mix is an eclectic short film series, made over the last thirteen years. While Pontus Lidberg’s THE RAIN has been screened and praised repeatedly around the world, and Klara Elenius’s INSIGHT was shown last fall by DFA at The New Museum of Contemporary Art, many of the others had their U.S. premieres at The Scandinavia House on June 1st. THE HIDDEN Made in 1996, this three-minute film ventures into the subconscious featuring white-robed maidens in a dark, conceptual piece that may keep you awake at night. The film is hard-edged and industrial in texture, no doubt the intention of director Jonas Akerlund, whose work includes music videos by artists such as Madonna, Metallica and U2. Set to chilling and eerie sound effects, the film straddles the line between music video and horror short. The maidens, despite their uncomfortable setting, possess a terrible beauty that is both thrilling and frightening, conjuring up images of fearsome and destructive goddesses. REWIND 2004 Guldbagge-award nominated REWIND (made as part of Magne Antonsen’s MOVING NORTH series), is an intriguing short narrated in English, describing a tangled social web which develops among eight people who live in the same house and like to dance. The film is stylistically minimalist, with a no-frills set that draws focus to the narrative and the individual dance style of each character – characters that are, unlike their bright and simple surroundings, complicated and imperfect. The movement appears jagged and cut-off from emotion at times, like so much of our day-to-day communication. “They don’t look happy, do they?” questions the narrator, almost half way through the film, an existentialist critique on the complexities of human social interaction. WEIGHTLESS This subtle, intelligent film made in 2004 makes a powerful statement on the relationship between our bodies and our modern physical environments. Feminine in tone, with an all-female cast, and a sultry female vocal score, it is a visual fusion of the organic (flesh and body) and the inorganic (furniture, fixtures and bedding). The set is cleverly designed so that what appears to be vertical is actually horizontal. The viewer is baffled by the performers’ seemingly effortless defiance of gravity. Filmed within the confines of four walls that alternately serve as living room and bedroom, every day items like lamps, blankets and chairs are turned into a magician’s arsenal of props that, combined with skillful editing and brilliant movement, create a masterful illusion. What makes this so compelling is that it is not an illusion at all but only a tilted camera, a carefully lit and designed set, along with divinely inspired movement – nothing short of real magic – that makes this film so special. Dancers Malin Stattin and Tula Lundkvist move with the skill of athletes and the buoyancy of astronauts. A tour de force for the talented Erika Janunger, who plays multiple roles as director, art director, songwriter and lyricist. 2SOON Graphic art meets dance in the 2005 short 2SOON. The piece gets off to a choppy start, with a somewhat abrasive, static-filled audio track and what seems to resemble 50’s retro special effects. Once past this two-minute introduction, the film ramps up with some vivid animation and colorful graphics. The choreography is avant-garde and the music makes a slow transition from musique concrète to acid techno – a perfect compliment to the quirky, off-beat styles of black-laced dancers Cilla Olsen and Kristine Slettevold, who move with an erratic quality reflective of their technology-inspired surroundings. PARADISE? PARADISE? (2004) is a meditative piece, reflecting on the precarious state of mankind in nature, which is perhaps, a paradise. Assuming a lowtech style, the director turned the camera upside down, speeds up or reverses the film, and casts images on water. A sense of a technology void is reinforced with a soundtrack equally organic, as mellow synthesizers are paired with the sounds of frogs and cicadas. Simple and soulful, the film ends with a long gaze at the reflection of a man standing naked in water, beautiful and exulted, but vulnerable in his wild surroundings. INSIGHT The 2007 film INSIGHT presents a minimalist view of life in suburbia, through the complicated interactions of three characters who walk (and dance) a fine line between rebellion and conformity. Movements mimic mundane, everyday tasks like washing the dishes and driving the car. The dancers, placed against backgrounds like neatly mowed lawns and shrub-lined driveways, become part of their suburban landscape. The music is pitch perfect, accenting nearly every move of the dancers. The set is consciously artificial, the clothing conservative, and the actors undoubtedly frustrated by their circumstances. The story shifts into a higher gear toward the middle of the piece, stating, “In time we became like strangers. Suddenly, the excitement returned.” The excitement, in this case, is a nervous breakdown on the part of the character that seemsed to be the most subdued of the three. The film reveals the pent-up passions and emotions of humans who find themselves caged, like animals, in their tidy psychological prisons. TILA Filmed in a darkened, bunker-like setting, Tila (2007) is a four-minute biographical snapshot of an exceptional character. A spotlight shines on the dancer from behind, without any other lighting or props of any kind. The focus lays exclusively on Tila’s innovative and extraordinary dance. As time passes, a feeling of sensory deprivation gives way to a heightened sensitivity, and we can enjoy the subtleties of the performance. Beads of sweat glow on her skin and her movements begin to resemble archetypical ideas and actions. A gentle piano music plays in the background and a soft light illuminates her movements. By the end of the film, Tila turns to stare toward the camera, climax enough for the humbled viewer. THE RAIN The Rain is a sensual and rather erotic piece about love and loss made in 2006. The genius of this film is obvious from the start: the entire film takes place under a constant torrent of rain. not the kind that we see whipping around in a storm, but rather an even, steady rain, soaking every corner of the screen, every fiber of clothing, crevice of the dancers to reveal the bare-boned beauty of the dance form. Cascading water turns ordinary objects into sensual focal points: a leathery chair as streams of water roll down its rubbery exterior; drips of water falling off of a Roman nose in profile; a string of white pearls that lay on a woman’s wet, glistening skin. Indoor scenes take on a theatrical quality, and scenes in natural, outdoor settings expand to become larger than life. Set on the grass, under trees, and in the streets, these locations free the dancers to run and dance like the wind. In these moments, the film really shines. Once the novelty of the rain wears off, which takes some time, movement is all that is left. With that, a passionate story of love, rejection, and resurrection unfolds: man and woman in an unhappy pairing, man and man who make a passionate connection, and finally, man and woman who make magic. Ballet traditionalists will appreciate this movie, as many of the performers who foray into the experimental and modern dance arenas, return faithfully to the form during, or by the end of each tableau. This is especially notable in the strong performances given by Yvan Auzely and Hedda Staver Cooke, who takes a slew of creative risks that add surprise and depth to the film. Choreographer-director Pontus Lindberg and Giovanni Bucchieri experiment in a gutsy and erotic duet that incorporates impressive gymnastic skill. Culminating with a climactic dance symphony, each dancer provides their own rendition of Lindberg’s tactile and sensuous choreography. With theatrical flare and a flawless attention to form, the dancers are at once lovers, ballet masters, and experimentalists. Stripped down to its essence, we see that despite the film’s fantastic novelty, it is a powerhouse dance feat. Shantal Parris Riley is a newspaper reporter by day and performer of Middle Eastern dance by night. Kinetic Cinema Concludes 2nd Season With Dance Vloggers Kinetic Cinema, directed by Anna Brady Nuse as part of Movement Media, a new project of Pentacle, wrapped up its season June 10 at Chez Bushwick in Brooklyn, NY, with REALITY DANCEVISION: An Intimate Screen Capture of Dance Vloggers. Boris Willis, dancer, video game designer, and creator of, curated the evening. Beginning with creative, amateur youtube posts, Boris moved to web compositions from professional dancers. A video by Ashley A. Friend fused a conventional vlog format (handheld camera, real-time narration, and everyday activities like making coffee) with an inventive dance film, made in her apartment, contrasting her real image with a mirror reflection. At the post-screening discussion, she revealed that her dance posts help build and educate contemporary dance audiences as people have come to her live performances after interacting with her on the internet. Willis claimed that a small community of dancers are dedicated to making a daily dance video, including Seattle-based Lee Atwell who was inspired by her Butoh teacher. Willis’s own contributions from danceaday were impressive in scale despite their reduced resources– one titled PRAYER shot outside with a fountain in the foreground featured ten clones of himself, which he acknowledged took hours to shoot. Visit Kinetic Cinema has embraced a wide range of topics, including dance films through the lens of pro sports, what defines cinedance, women in action movies, dance and animation, war aesthetics, and dance documentaries. The Success of Digital Ballet and Opera by Mary L Hodges In 2006, the Metropolitan Opera began a new approach to expanding its audiences with its series “The Metropolitan Opera: Live in High-Definition,” sparking an international phenomenon. In its first season, over 325,000 people attended the live broadcasts in movie theaters worldwide. The scope has grown each year, with their current (2008-2009) season featuring eleven transmissions to 45 states, the District of Columbia, and over 35 countries. Ticket prices vary by theater, but in New York City they run about $20. The program’s appeal is a no-brainer. It offers viewers a crisp, close up look at world-class performers for a fraction of opera house prices—often in cities that have no appropriate venue for a live alternative. (Encore presentations are screened at even more theaters.) During intermissions, HD audiences are treated to even more access, including interviews with the artists and other behind-the-scenes features. Emerging Pictures (EP), a film distribution company, is tapping into this demand for accessible, high-caliber classical performance. Working with a network of American theaters, they’re screening pre-recorded operas and ballets in HD. The dance offerings are primarily focused on the classics: EP presents the Kirov Ballet in DON QUIXOTE, SWAN LAKE, and THE NUTCRACKER. To commemorate the Ballets Russes centennial, there is also a Stravinsky triple bill featuring THE FIREBIRD (Fokine), THE RITES OF SPRING (Nijinsky), and THE WEDDING (Nijinska). More contemporary work is also on view, however. Alexei Ratmansky’s new adaptation of Shostakovitch’s BOLT and Mauro Bigonzetti’s MEDITERRANEA (performed by La Scala Ballet) are also part of EP’s “Ballet in Cinema” series.  Further, EP includes innovative opera productions like La Fura dels Baus’s production of DAS RHEINGOLD, which features dance elements and acrobatics. Even in cities like New York, whose many opera and ballet companies would seemingly exhaust their markets, performance on screen is a draw. Met Opera simulcasts play at the Walter Reade Theater, barely across the plaza from the opera house. Symphony Space screens opera and ballet one express subway stop away from Lincoln Center. In Queens, Kew Gardens Cinemas caters to the demand for ballet and opera in cinema. The HD phenomenon shows that there is definitely an audience for high art at regular movie houses, and for presenters, the economic advantages of presenting film over live work are more pressing than ever. There may well be room for more experimental corners of the dance film community to tap into this base. MARÉ, NOSSA HISTÓRIA DE AMOR Lucia Murat, Brazil, 2007, 104min review by Karen Backstein A pair of modern star-crossed lovers, based on Romeo and Juliet. Two rival gangs, both alike in ruthless violence. Kids dancing through the streets of a poor and dangerous neighborhood. It may sound like WEST SIDE STORY, but the work in question is actually MARÉ, NOSSA HISTÓRIA DE AMOR/MARÉ, OUR LOVE STORY, a Brazilian film by Lúcia Murat that takes place in one of Rio’s favelas, or hillside shantytowns, home now to the city’s most vicious drug dealers but also the birthplace of samba and Brazilian style rap and funk. For the most part, however, Murat eschews the Afro-based culture traditionally associated with Rio’s slums. At the Havana New York Film Festival, she not only acknowledged the influence of the Jerome Robbins’ musical but also her desire to showcase a different face of the favela. Instead, she, and screenwriter Paulo Lins (who also wrote the favela-based blockbuster CITY OF GOD) draw primarily on Shakespeare and on stage-based contemporary choreography. (Occasionally, however, both the movement and dialogue suggest the tension between the imported “high art” styles and what would be more typical fare for these characters.) The story begins in Maré, one of the city’s largest and worst favelas, where Analídia (Cristina Lago) and her family come to live after her drug-dealing father is sentenced to jail. There, under the watchful eye of his henchmen, Analídia falls for Jonatha (Vinicius D’Black), an aspiring DJ with allegiances to the opposing gang. But the dealers ensure that the course of true love doesn’t run smooth. The two young lovers find a meeting place and a refuge in a cultural center/dance studio run by Fernanda (Marisa Orth), a well-meaning do-gooder who has left behind the world of ballet in order to teach the youthful favelados the art and discipline of dance. Her school serves as a very uncertain shelter from the exploding world outside, and also as the motivation for most of the film’s choreography. Maré’s striking opening scene, however, doesn’t suggest violence: a band of young people dance joyfully through the favela’s winding streets, catch ing Analídia’s eye and impelling her body into motion. Unlike WEST SIDE STORY’s famed prologue, which introduces the contested territory and the two clashing gangs,this sequence presents an image of harmony and playfulness that ultimately turns out to be false. At the same time, the movement is thoroughly choreographed in the manner of a classic Hollywood musical, with the kids as a chorus performing battements, pirouettes, and jazzy movements. While not unique as a style, the form of dance is rarely seen in contemporary Brazilian film. Soon Analídia, unable to resist, joins the group and dances away with them. This sequence, the only dance not to take place in the school, turns all the world into a stage and bursts with freedom. It gives the dancers room to move and breaks with “reality.” They travel freely through space at this point, but thereafter, the choreography is circumscribed by four walls, rather than streets, and loses that happy sense of liberty. But perhaps this is only fair; as Maré continues, it’s clear that circumstances will limit the characters’ options. Like the original Shakespeare, environment and fate come together for tragic ends. The majority of the film’s formal choreography, created by Graciela Del Carmen Figueroa with the assistance of Sonia Destri, could roughly be classified as contemporary dance, with a bit of jazz, a hint of ballet, and a trace of vernacular Afro-Brazilian dance thrown in. Because these are young dancers, many actually from the favela itself, of necessity the choreography has limited complexity. But the school provides a good space for filming, and both camera and editing successfully capture youthful energy and an open, almost improvised feeling. A tension runs through the film between what Fernanda, a wealthier white woman who enjoyed a solid, traditional dance education, represents and what the residents of Maré stand for. She brings them the technique and the teaching methods she has always known, but her students approach it from their own experience and perspective. She teaches a standardized technique; they wish to break into their own looser, more Africanized moves. While Maré downplays the tension between the choreography that comes from “out there” and the kids’ own dance, it doesn’t ignore it altogether. That the much whiter and thinner Analídia pirouettes straight to the head of the class, so to speak, doesn’t go unnoticed by dancers whose color or body don’t fit the mold. And when the students are given the opportunity to watch a video of the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet, they’re entranced—but also discouraged. They do not believe that they would ever enjoy the opportunity to dance a classical ballet. In this sense, we can compare Maré to another recent film from Brazil, Beadie Finzie’s ONLY WHEN I DANCE, a documentary focusing on two young favela residents pursuing a ballet career against all odds; for Isabela, the dark-skinned would-be ballerina in that film, the dream can’t quite come true. But taken together, the two works signal something hopeful; the expansion of possibilities and hope in an area where once they were only in limited supply. Given the creativity that has always blossomed in the favela, even with its limited resources, we who love dance should all have something to look forward to. Karen Backstein is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Cineaste, Film Criticism, and other journals and books. She has also taught film studies in various New York City area universities. ONLY WHEN I DANCE Beadie Finzi, Brazil-UK, 2008, 78min review by Mary L Hodges British filmmaker Beadie Finzi’s new documentary, ONLY WHEN I DANCE, opened at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in late April. The film trails twoballet students, Isabela Coracy and Irlan Silva, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as they strive for careers as professional dancers and a ticket out of their dangerous and drug-riddled neighborhoods. Of these two, Irlan was present for the premiere. An exciting young dancer, he has spent the last season with ABT II, American Ballet Theater’s prestigious pre-professional company of young dancers. His dream is being fulfilled. Isabela, however, was conspicuously absent. Finzi’s team followed the dancers, their parents, and their teacher, Mariza Estrella, over the course of about eight months. In their late teens, they work to finish high school and prepare to compete in international ballet competitions. Top prizes are contracts to ballet companies, apparently the best path for Isabela and Irlan to gain employment as dancers. A more traditional approach—auditioning for companies separately—is not mentioned but assumed impractical for these dancers, perhaps due to language barriers and the cost of traveling. “The competitions are the only way to get noticed by the ballet companies,” Irlan tells the camera. The dancers give up “normal” teenage indulgences. Irlan has no time to build friendships, and Isabela forgoes bread and junk food in order to achieve a classical ballet look. “I will prove to them I want to be a ballerina,” she says defiantly. There’s a desperation in her resolve that is deeply moving and difficult to watch. In the context of ballet’s economy, Isabela has the combined misfortunes of being female, black, and poor, and although she is slender, her teacher insists that she is not thin enough. As one girl among many, it is harder for her to stand out than it is for Irlan. He receives a scholarship to travel abroad, while Isabela’s family takes extra jobs and loans that they clearly cannot afford in order to cover Isabela’s expenses. Their hopes are pinned on her success—so much rides on a couple minutes of performance at a faraway competition that the stress gives Isabela an allergic reaction on her skin. “It’s tough,” she acknowledges. Suddenly two round tears pop from her eyes, jarring reminders of her vulnerability that disrupt her steady composure. It’s heartbreaking. After a long ride of travel and competing, the results are in. Irlan attends the esteemed Prix de Lausanne alone, winning a prize that presumably leads to his ABT II contract. He also attends the Youth America Grand  Prix in New York with Isabela and other members of Mariza’s school. Isabela is not a finalist, and her disappointment is hard to bear. Mariza says she should have lost more weight, but also has to concede that, with so few competitors selected, there is really no room for error in the contenders’ performances. The group goes home with a third place ensemble prize. Director Finzi, who has worked with British ballet stars Michael Nunn and William Trevitt on a four-part television series, ROUGH GUIDE TO CHOREOGRAPHY, says that with ONLY WHEN I DANCE, she wanted to capture something beautiful and hopeful coming from Brazil’s favelas, instead of continuing the cliché of drugs and violence. Certainly, her film has a lot of hope, and there is beauty, too. The most deeply-felt moments are non -dance — a father’s declaration of love for his son, or a crowd of students anxiously checking to see who will progress to the next round. The performance footage itself looks sterile, furthering the plot but reducing the dancing. However, the few shots of Mariza’s classroom dancing do show the students’ elegance and determination, and a montage of Irlan rehearsing his contemporary solo is especially beautiful. There is, of course, more going on here than beauty and hope. Finzi is also interested in the wave of Brazilians studying ballet, and the ways in which this is upsetting the rarified, mostly-white ballet community. Yet the film fails to look critically at the gender and race politics at play. New York City Ballet hired Arthur Mitchell, its first black dancer, in 1955. He became a celebrated principal, created that striking pas de deux in Balanchine’s Agon, and later founded the Dance Theater of Harlem. Yet no black ballerina has ever attained the level of stardom and accomplishment he achieved. Today American Ballet Theater has three male principals from Latin America, none of them black, but still generally darker than ABT’s leading Latin ladies. Dark-skinned ballerinas certainly exist, but they are far less visible than their male counterparts. The fact remains that audiences and directors respond more favorably to darker skin when it belongs to men, where (thanks to cultural biases too complex to untangle in this review) it often conveys a masculine, “animal” sensuality not seen as appropriate to ethereal ballerinas. ONLY WHEN I DANCE illustrates how this double standard is reinforced, not challenged, often to frustrating results. Irlan may well be more deserving than Isabela of the ABT II contract; I do not mean to suggest otherwise. But after all of their sacrifices, what will become of Isabela and her family? Not exceptional enough to win an international competition, one hopes that she is finding healthy ways to pursue her passion for dance. Indeed, at the post-screening discussion, the audience learns that Isabela is working as a professional dancer in Brazil, and will be touring to New York in the fall. Included in the film, such a detail would do much to assuage the viewer’s sense that this girl has been irreparably crushed by her experience. Mary L Hodges is a contributor for The Brooklyn Rail.        
No Comments

Leave a Reply