Dance on Camera: 40 Years- A Reflection

Our 40th Anniversary Dance on Camera Festival was a momentous weekend in the history of Dance Films Association. Mindy Aloff, acclaimed dance writer, contributed this article to the festival program.

As 2012 opens, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the annual Dance on Camera Festival—the first and most enduring such film festival worldwide. Cheers for its handsome and luxuriously comfortable screening theaters, its thoughtful programmers and administrators, its congenial tone, and its generous roster of dancers, directors, critics and other celebrities who will be present in person for onstage conversations and audience questions.   Anniversaries encourage retrospection. And so I think back to the Festival’s earnest, hard-working, almost homemade beginnings in the early 1970s, when its screenings would occupy one or two afternoons at a library or other low-key venue and when its founder, the indomitable Susan Braun—also the founder, in 1956, of Dance Films Association—stretched herself to serve as the distributor for the films that she screened (please see sidebar).   In the opening years of the Festival’s first decade, when New York was going to hell financially, one could see extraordinary dancing in theaters, churches, lofts, and streetcorners for what now seems like peanuts. Braun must have had something of an uphill struggle to convince the dance audience that they could profitably take a day off from live performances to consider historic films (commercial and archival) and celluloid and video dance constructions by comparatively obscure independent filmmakers. And, yet, she made no evident concessions to marketing or sales: She embraced anthropological dance films, academic scripts; she even set aside programs of films exclusively for young children.   Audiences were expected to attend because these films were worth caring about for their subjects and/or rarity and because general audiences wouldn’t have easy access to them otherwise. Then, of course, there were no home-video systems, not to speak of no DVDs or Blu-ray discs, much less YouTube clips! The first things the word “digital” brought to mind were entities associated with fingers and toes, rather than a kind of camera. A “film festival” consisted mostly of actual films, many of them made with Eastman Kodak’s longstanding “home movie” 16mm film (introduced in 1923) or with Kodak’s Super 8 film (first available in 1965). Some of them were eventually shot using the chest-harness stabilizer, the Steadicam (introduced to the film industry by its inventor, Garrett Brown, in 1976), which permitted independent filmmakers to achieve the seamless tracking motion hitherto available only with the elaborate dollies of commercial studios. It was a kind of reinvention.   In 1977, the Festival began to be a competition, which, for at least a decade, helped to attract entries by dancers and filmmakers whose collaborations (many slated for television) are now considered classic dances for the camera. Festival entries in those years included the 1974 Eight Jelly Rolls, the 1978 Making T.V. Dance, and the 1979 Sue’s Leg: Remembering the Thirties, all of which feature outstanding choreography by Twyla Tharp and the exemplary direction of, respectively, Derek Bailey, Don Mischer, and Dance in America’s Merrill Brockway (also director of another festival entry, the 1977 Trailblazers of Modern Dance). The Tharp films were screened at Dance on Camera in 1977; Trailblazers was screened in 1980. Increasingly, too, Dance on Camera began to present historical rarities, such as the 1937 La Mort du cynge, directed by Jean Benoît-Lévy, with the classical ballet stars Yvette Chauviré and Mia Slavenska and the adolescent Janine Charrat—a connoisseur’s film that, to this day, is unavailable for commercial sale on any media platform. (Dance on Camera screened it in 2000.)   During the 1990s—when funding for American independent films began to decrease significantly, yet government funding for European and Canadian films was sustained at high levels—the demographics of the festival’s entries changed to reflect that shift in support, with a leveling off of applicants from the U.S. and an increase in those from France, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia, and Britain, as well as from Canada. Today, when countries all over the Western hemisphere are in financial distress, that, too, is reflected in the entries, whose numbers for 2012 are down from previous years. Still, the films to be shown this month include some of the most elaborate productions the festival has offered, such as the 2011 documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, directed by Bob Hercules, whose world première at Dance on Camera is, for the first time in Festival history, being given a simultaneous première at theaters across the country through Dance Film Association’s partnership with Emerging Pictures. And you will find projects such as Sally Sommer’s long-awaited chronicle of club dancing, Check Your Body at the Door (directed by Charles Atlas), which has been in process for a couple of decades. (An 11’ version was shown at the 2002 Dance on Camera Festival.).   My own awareness of the Festival dawned in the 1980s, when, like many dance aficionados, I began to understand that the outpouring of great live performances, both uptown and downtown, wasn’t going to last forever and that something of their stardust might be perpetuated by way of the camera. I didn’t know what “perpetuated” meant at that point: With no practical filmmaking (or even photography) experience, I thought of the verb vaguely as a point-and-shoot term in this context. Not until I was asked to serve as a member of the judging committee for the annual Dance on Camera Festival, nearly a dozen years ago, did I begin to appreciate that even those archival filmmakers who film from a fixed vantage point require planning and strategy for doing so—in some cases, considerable planning.   When I began to study dance films from the viewpoints of their filming techniques and camera and film technologies, I began to appreciate that a dance image on film is an artifact, dependent not only on the choreography, performers, composers, musicians, designers, make-up artists, and so forth, but also on the camera equipment, the sound system, and the nature and quality of the very film (or film substitute) itself. I was given a crash course in the fact that cinematic imagery of dancing tends to be evaluated by filmmakers against other cinematic imagery, rather than, as I and my dancegoer cohort evaluated it, as a kind of reporting of stage and/or physical reality whose achievement is in direct proportion to what we considered to be the imagery’s mirror-accuracy of “the real thing.” Perhaps the Festival’s finest examples of this critical standard were the performances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1936 black-and-white feature Roberta (directed by Willam A. Seiter, screened by Dance in Camera in 2001.) However, for example, George Balanchine was of the other party, despite his tremendous esteem for Astaire. During the 1930s, Balanchine published a number of statements about ballet on film, and in all of them he called for more fantasy—more “ciné-dance”—in the presentation of his art through unusual camera angles, pure film imagery, and so forth, at one point invoking animation as a model.   Since I was brought to my first movie musical at the age of four, I’ve been an eager audience for dance on film. Seated between my parents at the City Line Center theater, in suburban Philadelphia, I was instantly and utterly enchanted by Hollywood’s idea of Bournonville’s Royal Danish Ballet in the Danny Kaye musical Hans Christian Andersen (choreographed, I learned much later, by Roland Petit, who stepped in when Balanchine had to turn down the assignment, owing to scheduling conflicts). With pictures of Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Conner, Moira Shearer, and other cinematic dance stars in my head, until the Dance on Camera panel, it had never occurred to me that dancing could be anything but first in this relationship with the camera. However, in the one-room office of Dance Films Association, on an upper floor in a small Manhattan office building on West 21st Street, my fellow Dance on Camera judges, one from California and one from Europe and both affiliated with film festivals themselves, made it clear that, in considering artistic merit, a dance film has to work as a film first, that the cinematic aspect has primacy over any dance subject. We had, not knock-down fights, exactly, but some stiff discussions over that point. And our grand prize winner that year, a compromise for all three of us, was the 1999 Rest in Peace, a ten-minute movement-dance film of silky professionalism (performed by the Dutch dance company Het Hans Hof Ensemble and directed by Annick Vroom) about, of all things, a funeral! None of us expected to make this her first choice. Even more unexpected, though, was that the opening-night audience at the Walter Reade found it delightful.   I’ve often pondered this panel, as I realized that, if the arguments had concerned a literary award, I’d be siding with the film-firsters, prizing the way a story or essay or poem is articulated—the way it addresses its readership—over and above its subject matter, what it is actually addressing. Even with Balanchine’s partisanship, though, I still can’t say that I’ve crossed the street for good when it comes to filming dance: Among the images that haunt me from Dance on Camera festivals since I began to attend them 35 years or so ago have been simple “point-and-shoot”s of superlative performances, and they are mostly embedded in old, cinematically undistinguished archival footage of astoundingly great dancers at their physical peaks, usually showcased by documentaries about those dancers’ lives and careers—documentaries I’d never have known about, were it not for Dance on Camera. These images have profoundly expanded my expectations about the possibilities of dancing as a practice by human beings at a particular moment in a particular location.   The footage of the men, alone, constitutes a little library of dance genius: Erik Bruhn (in the 2000 documentary I Am the Same, Only More, directed by Lennart Pasborg and screened by Dance on Camera in 2001), for instance; and the tragically burned-out Yuri Soloviev, perhaps the most athletically gifted male ballet dancer I’ve ever witnessed in motion (in the 1995 documentary I Am Tired of Living in My Native Land, directed by Galina Mshanskaya and screened by Dance on Camera in 2001). Bruhn, a classical stylist of an angelic order, was performing mime roles by the time I had a chance to see him in person; Soloviev, a suicide at 37, never traveled to the U.S. Neither of these larger-than-life, standard-setting performances would have come into my ken, were it not for Dance on Camera. From modern dance, there is the almost unbelievable film sequence of the young Merce Cunningham, crossing an outdoor stage at Black Mountain College by springing along on the outsides of his curled-under feet, in his early solo Totem Ancestor (included in the 2000 documentary Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime in Dance, directed by Charles Atlas and screened by Dance on Camera, at its full, 90-minute running time, in 2006.)   As for ballerinas, no performance on film astonishes more than the archival film fragment, made in London by an anonymous spectator during a 1932 rehearsal, of Olga Spessivtzeva in the Act I mad scene of Giselle: That fragment was, for me, the revelation of the 1982 film-essay A Portrait of Giselle, a labor of love on the part of its narrator, Anton Dolin (who performed Albrecht to the bevy of Giselles featured there); its director, Muriel Balash; and its producer, Joseph Wishy. This is the only footage of Spessivtzeva known to have survived, and the Dance on Camera Festival of 1983 brought it to most of us for the first time. Thanks to the Festival, too, we have had enthralling moments of Balanchine ballerinas dancing in their prime. A great treasure is the 1951 archival film of an excerpt from Mr. B’s La Valse, at Jacob’s Pillow, with Tanaquil Le Clercq as the doomed “waltz girl” (screened by Dance on Camera in 2002). Archival film of Allegra Kent, Maria Tallchief, and four other irreplaceable ballerinas is included in Dancing for Mr. B., the 1989 documentary by Anne Belle and Deborah Dickson. And Bert Sterns’s archival film of Suzanne Farrell’s off-balance variation during the 1965 première gala of Balanchine’s Don Quixote is the crown jewel of Belle and Dickson’s 1996 Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse. Both of these films were screened by Dance in Camera in 2004, along with the 1987 Alexandra Danilova: Reflections of a Dancer, Anne Belle’s documentary on the great ballerina and member of the School of American Ballet faculty, and a 15-minute excerpt from Belle’s then-documentary-in-process on S.A.B. teacher Stanley Williams, now deceased. (That film remains unfinished). Indelible as well is the archival footage of the Flamenco tornado Carmen Amaya, in Carmen Amaya Forever (presented by Dance in Camera in 2000), a compilation of her performance clips by Patrick Bensard of the Cinemathèque de la Danse, in Paris. And, having lost sight of them for twenty years, it was also a treat for me to see the archival clips of the tapper Jeni Le Gon, masterly syncopations pouring like honey from head to toes, in the 1999 documentary Jeni Le Gon: Living in a Great Big Way (directed by Grant Greschuk and also screened in 2000).   Were it not for Dance on Camera, I’d never have encountered Belated Première, the 2003 documentary (directed by Viktor Bocharov) about the animated dance notations and live-action independent films of character dances from the Maryinsky repertoire, made between 1906 and 1909, by the Imperial Theater’s Alexander Shiryaev (1867-1941). As these notations confirm, Shiryaev, Marius Petipa’s erstwhile protégé, was actually the choreographer of the “hoop” or “candy cane” variation in Act II of The Nutcracker—the dance that Balanchine performed in as a child and preserved, almost exactly, in his version of that Tchaikovsky classic. This fastidiously conceived and edited Shiryaev documentary, presented by Dance on Camera in 2005, was a game-changer not only for the audience’s idea of dance history but also of the history of animation. And, while we’re on animation, Disney participated in the Festival in 2004 with its one-of-a-kind animated short, the 2003 Destino, a Surreal romance between a baseball player and a ballerina. This short, quite unexpected from Disney, was completed by director Dominique Monfréy and a French crew over a half century after plans were first made to produce it by Walt Disney himself and the painter Salvador Dalí, who, for a time, was brought into the Disney studios as an inspiration artist in the mid-1940s.   On the other hand, going back to the film-firsters’ side of the street, debatably the greatest example of the cinema ever shown at any Dance on Camera Festival in the past 40 years has no actual dance in it: The Color of Pomegranates, Sergei Paradjanov’s 1968 masterpiece, a feature-length fantasy concerning the life and art of the Medieval Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. In this epic poem, Paradjanov invented a personal language of moviemaking. Its visionary images erupt from a clearly told story of the arc of a poet’s life from childhood to death, and its breathtaking elements include stinging stillnesses, jewel-colored compositions, dizzying discrepancies in proportion between living things and their surroundings, and dazzling formal beauty derived from ancient miniature paintings. Its legacy can be found in moviemakers as disparate as Michelangelo Antonioni and Madonna. In The Color of Pomegranates (screened by Dance on Camera in 2007), Paradjanov, championed in his terrible persecutions from the Soviet government by the greatest artists of his time, from Luis Buñuel to John Updike, achieved, as critic Alexei Korotyukov put it, a film that “was not about how things are, but about how they would have been had he been God.” At the festival screening of it I attended, the audience could barely speak afterwards, and some of us were openly weeping. It is in no way about the letter of dancing, but it encapsulates the idealism of dancers, their search for transcendence, their reverence for the effort to “be in the moment,” their respect for the glory and the vulnerability of the body. The presentation of this film by a festival called “Dance on Camera” was a risky decision that proved to be a deeply moving and quintessentially sophisticated intellectual act. It reminded us that, married to the steps and/or movement—to the material of dance that we can name or attempt to describe—is an element for which we have no adequate words, only weak or exhausted ones: “breath,” “spirit,” “poetry,” “the ineffable.”   Intellectual adventure can take many forms, of course, from the visceral to the sly; and Dance on Camera has showcased a wonderful variety of them. A landmark from the Lyndon Johnson era was reintroduced by the Festival to audiences at the threshold of the Reagan decade: A movie of Meredith Monk in her incendiary, 1966 mixed-media performance solo Sixteen Millimeter Earrings (filmed 1980, directed by Robert Withers and screened by Dance on Camera in 1980). There was the unprecedented, 1987 nature-dance short Husk, a gorgeous pas de deux, made for film, between Eiko, slowly shifting her weight on the floor, and, unseen behind the camera, Koma (screened by Dance on Camera in 1988). And there were Merce Cunningham’s early collaborations with the director Eliot Caplan, including the mysterious and delicate portrait of flocking dancers, the 1993 Beach Birds for Camera (screened by Dance on Camera in 1993). There was On Dancing Isadora’s Dances, the meticulous, 1988 film essay of Annabelle Gamson coaching Duncan solos (produced and written by Gamson, co-directed by Joel Gold and Jonathan David, and screened by Dance on Camera in 1990). And there was Dancing from the Heart, Marilyn Hunt and Andrew Garcia’s deeply personal documentary—finished in 2004 and revised in 2007—of individuals who are central in performing Native American dances of the Southwest and in passing them along to the next generation (screened by Dance on Camera in 2005).   With the extreme categories—archival films devoted to recording stage performances by dancers and a feature film in which there are none (who are visible)—I have given you the outermost borders of Dance on Camera’s identity, as well as examples of the two poles represented by the passionate committee in the year I participated in the judging. The majority of films over the past 40 years, though—such as those mentioned in the paragraph above—are far more various in their approaches, in their techniques, in the subjects on which they focus, in their orientation toward realism and abstraction, reporting and invention. And the spectrum of dance they showcase! Among the feature films the Festival has screened from the past was the ballet film of ballet films, The Red Shoes of 1948 (co-directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and screened by Dance on Camera in 2005). Among the many illuminating documentaries was the empathetic and keenly observant 1979 documentary No Maps on My Taps (directed by George T. Nierenberg and screened by Dance on Camera in 1979), which entwines the onstage and offstage stories of the heroic tap artist Chuck Green, the sweetheart of a stylist Sandman Sims, and the bravura Bunny Briggs, whose paddle-and-roll technique made him look as if he were simply scuffing through a carpet of ocean pearls.   Short fantasies, long narratives, cinematic “poems,” animation, serious investigations, whimsical spoofs, film-studio perennials, hand-held experiments, dancing on stages, across lawns, through water, on sand, by hale and hearty individuals who have use of both legs and by individuals who require equipment to do so: This is the story of Dance on Camera—the sights and sounds of dance as life, life as dance.   Mindy Aloff Mindy Aloff teaches Dance in Film, Dance Criticism, and courses in dance history and the personal essay as an adjunct associate professor of dance at Barnard College. Her book Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation, published in 2008 by Disney Editions, served, in 2009, as the basis for a Festival presentation of historic Disney animated shorts and excerpts from animated features in which dancing is central.  
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