November/December 2010

Bird Watching: A Review by Elizabeth Zimmer BLACK SWAN aced its opening weekend, albeit one of the slowest box-office weekends of the year; The New York Times on December 6 reported that in the art-house category, playing at only 18 theaters, it grossed $1.4 million, a record for Fox Searchlight, which released it. The movie will also probably win some Oscar nominations. But a place in the hearts of lovers of dance film? Not a chance. Darren Aronofsky’s “psychosexual thriller” is a hallucinatory horror, a paranoid fantasy pitting women against each other and against themselves. It shows us almost no ballet; the camera is usually jammed up against Natalie Portman’s lovely face or watching pinfeathers poke out of her shoulder blade. My favorite scene is not a dance shot at all, but the moment when Portman’s character, playing Odile on opening night of a new production of “Swan Lake,” actually sprouts huge black wings.  You can do things in the movies that just don’t work onstage. Among those things is setting the work at Lincoln Center but actually shooting it at Purchase and in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music; piercing a woman’s abdominal cavity with a shard of glass and having her nevertheless finish a ballet; and foregrounding violence at every possible opportunity, including the pounding of pointe shoes to soften them up. BLACK SWAN rarely risks natural light; it’s shot in subways, subterranean corridors, restrooms, dressing rooms, bedrooms, closets—enclosed spaces that don’t lend themselves to dancing.  From the start Nina, the character Portman dances with the help of body doubles, is more vampire than swan; she gets her leading role by biting the lip of the sexually arrogant director (French actor Vincent Cassel). We see full-length shots of him seducing her or lounging in the rehearsal studio, but only rarely do the camerapersons vouchsafe us a full view of a dancing body. Actions have consequences. In BLACK SWAN, many of the pivotal scenes turn out to have perhaps been hallucinated by a paranoid woman falling apart; there’s no way to tell what is really going on, so it’s very hard to have a consequential response. Does Nina really murder Mila Kunis, her rival and sometime lover? Were they ever really lovers? Aronofsky chooses sensationalism over authenticity at every turn. In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 THE RED SHOES, on the other hand, great care is taken to show us the visceral experience of a dancer’s life, the mechanics of collaboration, and ultimately, the products of everyone’s labors. While the movie, one of the earliest excursions into Technicolor, is melodramatic, it’s brilliantly handled, a visual feast of dancing, fashion, and summer in Monte Carlo that lets us experience the actual lives of people who work in the arts, both onstage and in the glamorous world of the French Riviera. The subject is dancing, not abnormal psychology. The story, derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” manages to be both magical and down-to-earth. We believe Victoria Page’s struggle to reconcile her love for composer Julian Crater and her bond with Boris Lermontov, the Diaghilev figure who pulls the strings at this fictional troupe patterned on the Ballets Russes. THE RED SHOES positions the audience as central to the creative undertaking; we viewers have a place, and an investment, in the proceedings. Moira Shearer, the real Sadler’s Wells dancer making her film debut, pays enormous attention to everything happening around her, in contrast to Portman who focuses on her own dissolving center. Both films show us “spotting” from inside the dancer’s head, and both exploit the image of a cracked mirror.  Each features a Svengali trying to control the life of a young woman. But the difference between the sexually remote Lermontov (brilliantly acted by Anton Walbrook) and Cassel’s sleazy Thomas Leroy is the difference between art and pornography, between a carefully developed character and a device. Just before THE BLACK SWAN opened in New York,Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theater brought its production of “The Red Shoes”, adapted from Andersen’s tale and directed by Emma Rice, to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The only film in evidence here was confined to a small circular screen above the double-decker stage, on which Mark Jenkin’s scenes changed to indicate long journeys taken by the characters. The performers—all male except for Polish Patrycja Kujawska, who sacrifices her feet to the compulsion of the shoes—were uniformly fine; they mingled with the audience before the show and sat in the house until called forth to perform. You could mount a thousand of Rice’s projects for the cost of one feature film. The simplicity and ingenuity of Bill Mitchell’s designs captured the vindictive nature of the church and the price paid for wearing red shoes inside one. Clogs instead of ballet slippers, these shoes superseded a coating of red paint applied after the girl was orphaned. Rice sets up a conflict between “the need for freedom and the need for peace.” In her show, at least, the dancing girl is still alive at the end. Elizabeth Zimmer writes about the arts for print and digital outlets worldwide. She edited the text of Envisioning Dance for Film and Video, a 2002 publication from Routledge. She studied ballet for close to 30 years.   Dance on Camera Reflections by Deirdre Towers 30 years ago I started working for DFA. I had gone to Susan Braun, the founder of DFA seeking a fiscal sponsorship for a cross-cultural documentary on Argentine Tango. She granted me the fiscal umbrella but she also recruited me to write her bimonthly publication. At the time, I was working in the music department of the Organization of American States for Efraín Paesky, a pianist who had left Argentina because of political differences. That same year, Carlos Saura’s BLOOD WEDDING was released. I was awe-struck by the collaboration of Saura and choreographer/dancer Antonio Gades, by the clarity of the story and by the range of emotions it triggered in me. That one film determined the course of my life, which has been largely dedicated to dance on camera and flamenco ever since. 30 years later, DFA is honored to offer the U.S. premiere of Saura’s latest film FLAMENCO FLAMENCO in its Dance on Camera Festival 2011. Unlike BLOOD WEDDING, no dramatic or thematic thread is readily visible in this film. Saura simply honors the past, by weaving the camera around free standing blow-ups of 20th century paintings and posters of flamenco, and the present, by holding a steady gaze on the artists, arguably the best from Spain today: Paco de Lucia, Estrella Morente, Manolo Sanlucar, Rocio Molina, Eva La Yerbabuena. These artists have each created their own distinctive style and formidable technique but none aspires to the narrative thrust of Gades’ work. Their ideas rush out with the speed of the Internet age, not with the crawl of the once isolated Andalusia. In contrast, THE LAST TIGHTROPE DANCER IN ARMENIA is an old-fashioned tearjerker, an ode to a dying tradition, and to a magnificent country. The Armenian directors Inna Sahakyan and Arman Yeritsyan were driven by the sad fact that their children might not be able to experience tightrope dancing as they had. They ingeniously captivate us with the anguish of the last two masters of this art, rivals in their day, who are not convinced that their only student is fearless enough to do the job. Beyond Spain and Armenia, the Dance on Camera Festival 2011 will stoke your wanderlust with tales from Bahia, Congo, Ethiopia, Switzerland, Tibet, France, Germany, Canada, Scotland, and of course the United States. PASSION – LAST STOP KINSHASA reminds one of how much a mind twist travel can be. Alain Platel, the Belgian choreographer featured in this documentary, became enthralled with how Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” tackled the magnitude of the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. For Platel, this seems to be an intellectual puzzle, an image to explore, but for the African singers involved in his production, devout Christians, it seems deeply personal.  Joerg Jeshel & Brigitte Kramer, the directors who brought us URBAN BALLET last year, do a stellar job of photo journalism, making us feel like a member of the troupe, far from the familiar.

Photo by Yu Wadee

ALL THE LADIES SAY, created over the last four years by the Bronx B-Girl Queen Rokafella and her dancing husband/mentor Kwikstep, takes us beyond the known male hip- hop camp. They showcase the ladies who twirl on their necks with the greatest of ease: break-dancers Vendetta, Severe, Lady Champ, Aiko Shirakawa, Baby Love. Another personal favorite is Morleigh Steinberg’s UNSUNG set in an Irish Pub. Somehow you can feel the drizzle outside and the intimacy of a simple bar where the regulars feel free to sing and dance in the Irish traditions, both gay and aggrieved, and move singularly, and with uninhibited honesty. In addition to the 10 programs at the Walter Reade Theatre, DFA’s Festival includes an installation of the wildly imaginative, soulful Billy Cowie, hosted by The Baryshnikov Arts Center. Don’t miss this! I have been trying to find a NYC home for his 3D, 4-screen MEN IN THE WALL for more years than I’d like to confess. The shorts and retrospective offered on the Big Screen Project is DFA’s venture into Public Art and the chance to mingle at Bar Basque while viewing the films. DFA’s 39th Festival demonstrates the importance of dance, not only as a language, but as a sensibility, as a means to express something rarely captured in print, in feature films, or on the street. This year, the filmmakers seem bent on tripping up preconceived notions of what a particular dance form might be or what effect a film might provoke.  For example, Rocio Molina in FLAMENCO FLAMENCO, sporting a cigarette, bare midriff, and tights, is as playful as Gwen Verdon in a Bob Fosse musical. Are we disappointed not to see the polka dot dresses that used to be the norm of Seville, or are we prodded to embrace change, acknowledge that artists are products of not only their culture but of the mood of their times? Dance: An Expanding Practice by Blakeley White-McGuire Dance on film revealed its form to me while reviewing raw footage of new choreography, which I had casually filmed during a creative residency in New York City last summer. In a moment, I was struck by the camera’s perspective – unbiased, intimate and honest. My strictly functional placement of the camera (on the floor facing the mirror) captured the dance from a unique position; one that I could not and would not have physically maintained myself. It was this practical, yet synchronous aspect of the camera’s point of view that initially inspired a filmic exploration of my dance film, THESE WORLDS IN US. Community has been a theme in my dances since I began making them as a child. Dance is a vehicle for me to learn about people and for people to learn about me. In the past, it had been difficult to find satisfaction with any filmic representations of my dances (which had been strictly documentary) because they oftentimes they were two-dimensional and gave me no feeling. The tension and dynamic got lost in translation. But within this particular footage, I saw and felt potential; the images, lines, partnering and formations resonated emotionally with the music and the space inside the frame. I began shaping the footage with editing tools on my laptop and spent all of my free time trying out different cuts, lighting, timing and musical placements. By the end of that first editing week, I had a draft. It was my sense that the film could have a life, but I wanted to learn more about the genre itself. At the encouragement of a friend, who was also the generous supporter of my dance residency, I met with two directors from Dance Films Association. This encouragement was significant because the idea of DFA had not remotely crossed my mind; I was too caught up in my own thoughts and ideas. It took an outside voice to open new possibilities, another person’s imagination to expand opportunities. DFA Executive Director Beni Matias and board member Marta Renzi generously shared with me their ideas on how a new dance filmmaker might approach the process. I came away from that conversation with the understanding that research and experimentation were going to be essential factors in going deeper into the form, as was developing an appropriate budget and generating financial support. These challenges and the time commitment involved in creating, staging, editing, re-viewing and sculpting fractions of seconds in order to evoke an emotional charge, were great but not overwhelmingly so. As I became more familiar and invested in the process, the editing time seemed to fly by – like time spent in rehearsal honing a transition or exhausting a movement until self-consciousness relinquishes its hold. My first dance on film, THESE WORLDS IN US, is not experimental in the larger realm of the genre; but for me personally, it is completely experimental. It elucidates the real interdisciplinarity of forms which galvanize to create a unique expression in the world. It reveals the coming together of people – dancers, musicians, funders, filmmakers and audience to contribute something beautiful and subtle to the world – at the very least, striving for it. Blakeley White-McGuire is a dance artist. Currently a Principal Dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, she has performed with: Martha Clarke, Sean Curran, Daniel Ezralow, Richard Move, Pascal Rioult, Avila/Weeks, the Metropolitan Opera, at the Superbowl and Pope Benedict XVI’s Concert of Hope. Blakeley has served on the faculties of The Ailey School, The Actors’ Studio and The Martha Graham Center. Her own dances have been presented in many festivals and venues including Jacob’s PIllow’s INSIDE/OUT and the Joyce Theater. Blakeley is currently pursuing her MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College.   Alla Kovgan: Shoemaker by Marta Renzi How does an award-winning filmmaker share her insights and experience in only two hours? Alla Kovgan chose to outline the process of making the short film NORA – from the original decision to focus on Nora Chipaumire as subject/story, to tips on editing. Along the way we were treated to a mini-list of other inspirational film artists, as well as pithy advice from this one. Kovgan is articulate, direct, opinionated, ambitious but unpretentious about her craft: “as a director you must communicate with passion – and be able to answer questions.” Kovgan did both. “When Nora walked into the room, all heads turned!” – Kovgan remembers. “This is a magic moment for any filmmaker. I was struck by Nora’s unique presence in life and on stage.” The question was, however: “Can this presence be as strong in front of the camera? Stage presence doesn’t always translate to screen presence.” In addition, presence alone is not enough to make a movie: there needs to be a story. “Nora’s story of growing up in Zimbabwe had a clear trajectory and clear end point when she left for the US.” How do you write a script for a dance film, turning the facts of a life into a poetic film biography? You begin with a series of conversations. Chipaumire shared with Kovgan her memories of growing up in Zimbabwe, filled with details of places, people and politics. Kovgan created from their conversations a poem of 12 stanzas or episodes, which remained the structure for the film. Together Kovgan and Chipaumire worked on developing the characters in NORA, avoiding clichés and stereotypes. They would ask: “How does one represent “SOUTHERN AFRICAN COOL OF 1980s” – or “A SOUTHERN AFRICAN MAN IN LOVE”? (renowned director of BIRDS; SNOW and several collaborations with DV8 Physical Theater) to join the project. Hinton and Chipaumire then met in London to complete the three-way collaboration, the project enriched by each artist’s particular sensibility and background. “In so many dance films, I ask – why are they dancing? But because NORA is the story of a dancer, we wouldn’t have to justify why she dances!” They looked at many different locations – “more than one for any given scene and movement image,” Kovgan advised. “Don’t stop with one. Get ten! The more you push, the deeper you’ll go, and the more discoveries you’ll make.” Continuing their research, and planning for technical and cast limitations, the team created a set of rules for the film: * Chipaumire would play multiple lead characters in the film – herself as a young girl, as a teenager, as an adult, as her mother and her father. * There would be one other professional dancer – the Burkinabe performer Souleymane Badolo playing multiple supporting characters. * Each character would have a different vocabulary in different scenes. * The film would be populated with many other characters – grandmothers, aunts, dancing women, children of different ages, revolutionaries, etc. – all played by non-professional performers. * Each shot would be a choreographed tableau created with static camera according to a precise concept of light and composition. * There would be limited camera movement – meticulously choreographed dolly and tracking shots only. No hand-held camera. When asked if NORA was shot with more than one camera, Kovgan answered pointedly, “Always one camera. Watch the film NINE for what I call the football game approach to shooting. Where’s the focus? What’s the relationship? Who are we dancing for? We’re not just covering dance, we’re creating images!” Kovgan also outlined her editing process, much of which was learned editing alongside her mentor, veteran editor Bill Anderson, while working together on the 2003 Emmy-nominated documentary TRACE OF THE TRADE. Kovgan touched on the creation of successive folders in Final Cut Pro: from DAILIES to PULLS, ASSEMBLIES, ROUGH CUTS, FINE CUT and PICTURE LOCK. She recommends duplicating sequences at every stage of the process so you can always return to previous versions. “Once in the editing room, you need to look at the material with new eyes to see what it has to offer. Say you had five takes. First PULL everything that is usable from all the takes. If the whole take doesn’t work, don’t discard it. Part of that take might inspire you to have fresh ideas about its content.” Together Hinton and Kovgan worked on editing NORA for about 6 weeks in London. In conclusion, here are some inspirational words of wisdom from an artist: “Be ambitious – know your strengths; do what you’re good at, and work with people who are really good at what they do – why spend all your time making something and not get the best result?” “We are shoemakers. If the shoe is no good, who will wear it?”    
Recommended Viewing:
Hinton & Kovgan: NORA
DFA has been the fiscal sponsor for several of Alla Kovgan’s projects and will soon also sponsor her next project, LET ME CHANGE YOUR NAME, a narrative feature based on the life and work of Korean choreographer Eun-Me Ahn – Alla’s second collaboration with David Hinton. The Dance Goodbye An Interview between Editor Kathryn Luckstone and DFA fiscal sponsored filmmakers Eileen Douglas & Ron Steinman Along with Ron Steinman – her producing partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions – Eileen Douglas has been a member of Dance Films Association for well over a decade. She has forgotten how she first learned of the organization but remembers well that she turned to DFA at a time when THE DANCE GOODBYE project needed a fiscal sponsor. She recalls with great appreciation how generous Deirdre Towers was with her time and advice, patiently encouraging Douglas to apply, telling her, “…of course you can do the paperwork!” In later stages, Towers aided in sharing leads for funding support. Now that the film is nearing completion, Douglas/Steinman Productions draws great confidence from being in the DFA fold, knowing that there will be helping hands as they take their last steps over the finish line. How did you arrive at deciding to make THE DANCE GOODBYE? Years ago, when Eileen was an anchor/reporter at New York’s All News Radio station 1010 WINS, she was asked by a friend on the staff at Actor’s Equity to do a radio talk show featuring Career Transition For Dancers, a new group Actor’s Equity was creating to help dancers in post-retirement. The half hour show was tremendously engaging. Guests included recently retired ballet star Jacques d’Amboise, Broadway chorus dancers facing the end of their careers, and the director of the new organization. A decade later, in the late 90s, Eileen had become an independent documentary producer with Ron Steinman. One day she received a postcard from her old Actor’s Equity contact. Eileen remembered how powerful the radio show had been—and, realized how visually compelling it could be to capture on film the life of a dancer who is no longer a performer. Douglas/Steinman Productions began laying plans to make a pilot for fundraising, at roughly the same time as the newspapers were full of the news that Merrill Ashley was retiring from the New York City Ballet. We put those articles into a clip file with many others. Lo and behold, one day in the locker room of Eileen’s gym, who should walk by but someone who looked remarkably like Merrill Ashley. Hard to believe, but it was in fact her. Eileen longed to approach her to ask if she would agree to be in our pilot. But being respectful, and admittedly more than a little shy, months went by as Eileen debated how to speak to her. Then one day, in the pool, Eileen was talking to a friend when Ms. Ashley came along. Eileen’s friend happened to know Ms. Ashley so then an introduction was made.  “Eileen, do you know Merrill?”  “No, but I’ve had something I’ve wanted to talk to you about! Graciously, she agreed to be our subject for the pilot. Ms. Ashley was so articulate and moving in our first interviews that we realized we needed no one else to tell the story. Focusing on her struggle to find her way would be the perfect way to tell the story for the entire length of the feature film. Over the last decade Ms. Ashley has been extremely cooperative and trusting. She has never imposed her will on us or tried to take the film in another direction. She has been available for the many interviews and the needed B-Roll we did with her, always truthful in what she said and how she said it. She has made available her personal archive, including from her early years. We believe that the audience will see Ms. Ashley as a warm, giving and unusual person; full of insight into the life of a prima ballerina after the music stops and the dance is over. What challenges have you had to overcome through the making of this film? With any documentary the main challenge is raising the money to make the film. We started this film in 1998. Three years later 9/11 happened, and any money we thought we might raise dried up. There was little interest in our subject. We were unable to raise the money to continue production. In the intervening years, we made two feature-length documentaries and a short subject documentary. Early in 2010 we decided to restart production for THE DANCE GOODBYE. We were able to raise the money to complete our shooting and to edit a rough cut. What is the current status of the production? After securing the archival material, still images and dance footage, we wrote a script and started editing in October of 2010. By mid January 2011, we expect to have completed a rough cut of the film, which will contain all the necessary footage, with rights cleared only for fundraising screenings. At this point, raising the money to complete the film is our next step. We are showing the current version of THE DANCE GOODBYE to those interested in ballet and in the unique story of a prima ballerina making the transition from being a major figure in the dance world to an exemplary teacher and coach, carrying the flame of Balanchine worldwide. Once we secure finishing funds several other steps remain: replace the archival film/video and stills with the cleared film/video and stills; color correct the film and go into audio post-production. Then, finally, THE DANCE GOODBYE will be available for festivals, TV broadcast and on DVD. We anticipate it will be ready for showings in the fall of 2011. To learn more about THE DANCE GOODBYE, contact Ron Steinman at:  or Eileen Douglas at: For more information on how to support THE DANCE GOODBYE contact Dance Films Association at:
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