Big as Life

Matthew Diamond's Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, the Academy Award-nominated documentary tracing a year in the life of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, airs tonight on PBS's American Masters series. An intimate study of the choreo- grapher and the birth of a new work, its popularity attests to a growing interest in dance film.

This year's "Dance on Camera Festival," the biggest ever, opens next weekend (January 14, 15, 21, and 22 at the Walter Reade Theater; January 18 through 20 at Anthology Film Archives), a project of the 43-year-old Dance Films Association. Screening 41 films from around the world and now in its 28th year, the festival highlights the creative imaginations of Canadian directors and displays rare historical footage of early-20th-century dance. Yet this leading dance film festival in the nation, produced in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, subsists on a tiny budget, attributing its recently elevated profile to Internet exposure. The 10-day event offers films ranging from performance biographies like producer Veronica Tennant's Margie Gillis: Wild Hearts in Strange Times, about a magnetic solo dancer who's been compared to Isadora Duncan, to abstract pieces that challenge the traditional definition of choreography.

Douglas Rosenberg, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and will offer a hands-on, intensive dance-on-camera workshop during the festival, describes the current abundance of dance films as a "renaissance," the result of more artists recognizing the potential of the medium. "The movement is anything from the look of an eye, a glance, a hand tapping, or an arabesque," says director Laura Taler of the choreography in her Village Trilogy, inspired by her Romanian heritage.

As the dance community ages and loses artists to AIDS, it acknowledges the historic value of older dance films and footage documenting the careers of senior dancers. Grant Greschuk, the director of Jeni Legon: Living in a Great Big Way, uses extracts from tap dancer Legon's work in Hollywood movies from the '30s to demonstrate her youthful virtuosity and the experiences that fueled her passionate teaching career. "People need to know where music and dance and the arts come from and how they evolved," Greschuk says. "So many people today don't get it; Michael Jackson didn't invent the moonwalk."

A number of successful dance filmmakers are choreographers and performers who find filmmaking a natural extension of their careers. They build on their stage experience as collaborators with dancers and costume and lighting designers to conceive for the screen. Carol Finley, director and choreographer of the short Polka Dream, found that "the editing process . . . seemed so linked to choreography that I could never give it up to someone else." Although not all directors also shoot, edit, and choreograph the work, dance informs their directorial choices: "As a choreographer you're choreographing people, and as a filmmaker you're choreographing the camera," says Taler, whose The Barber's Coffee Break grew out of filming improvisational sequences with dancer Tedd Senmon Robinson.

Though equipment is increasingly affordable, many dance filmmakers, particularly Americans, lack the financial resources necessary for production. In Canada, grants from Bravo FACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent), the National Film Board of Canada, and federal and provincial arts councils aid artists, although many Canadians worry that their funding will share the fate of American arts money. "Dance on Camera" would love to give awards, financial or otherwise, to films selected for the festival, but the Film Society of Lincoln Center does not permit it.

The filmmakers are further challenged by the scarcity of venues for their work. During her 25 years as prima ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada, Veronica Tennant was constantly filmed for television and remains committed to bringing dance to a larger community: "Dance shouldn't be locked away, overly revered, or separated out from mainstream encounters." For now, most dance films—with the exception of blockbusters like Diamond's Dancemaker—can only be seen at festivals. Relegating dance films to the big screen does have one happy result, however: The dancers are larger than life.

 
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