The Artificial Eye

Movement cut, spliced, dissolved, flattened, montaged, and projected larger than life

At this year's Dance on Camera Festival, you can see idiosyncratic collaborations between dancers and filmmakers, documentaries, historic footage, film translations of stage works—in short, everything the camera can do to and for dance. Its gaze may be calmly intrigued, as it is in Karina Epperlein's elegant Phoenix Dance, focusing on the wonderfully lyrical Homer Avila as he and Andrea Flores rehearse and perform a pas de deux created by Alonzo King. Avila lost a leg to cancer but grew as an artist; at one point he and Flores become a three-legged unit, traveling like unfolding silk. Decisions about angles and editing may be as purposefully strange as they are in Charles Atlas's 1986 Hail the New Puritan, which enters the clothes-mad, punk world of British choreographer Michael Clark, and intensifies the layered look of diverse activities within a Clark work (people dance while others talk, eat, and watch the telly) and of the seething bodies in a strip club his company invades.

A rapid editing pace, however, is disconcerting in Sharada Ramanathan's sensuous, opulently colored romantic drama Sringaram/Dance of Love. The seductions, rites, intriguing dances, and proto-feminist rebellions involved in this tale of a 1920s temple dancer of southern India (considered the property of the small-time village ruler) seem to unfold at the rate of a cut every two seconds, often for no discernible reason.

Set dancers in a real place and their usual way of life becomes a metaphor for wild behavior. In Annick Vroom's engrossing Hohenluft, early-20th-century tuberculosis patients in an upscale Alpine sanitarium waltz, sled, and entangle feverishly with one another and the staff, all the while smoking and coughing. A medical exam becomes a punitive pas de deux.

Raising arms and consciousness: Sringaram
photo: Courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center
Raising arms and consciousness: Sringaram

Three documentaries approach their subjects very differently. Huseyin Karabey's A Breath of Pina Bausch shows Wuppertal Dance Theatre members rehearsing and performing parts of Bausch's Neftes in Istanbul. Onstage, dancers flail in and out of the frame, but in the studio, the camera wanders, resting on whatever interests the director (dancers working on material alone or in small groups), now and then regarding Bausch—who regards her busy colleagues, smiles occasionally, writes in a notebook, and says not a word. Virginia Brooks's lovely The Nutcracker Family: Behind the Magic is more patient. Her subject is the children who perform in George Balanchine's Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet every season. Brooks avoids close-ups of disappointed or exhilarated faces, letting us feel the stress without intervention. A former Nutcracker child, interviewed at a reunion, says the experience marked "the first time in my life I was treated as an adult." That's what Brooks's film shows us during auditions (the waiting kids quiet as mice) and weeks of demanding rehearsals with tireless ballet mistress Garielle Whittle. Toy Soldiers stop tripping over their guns and Candy Canes' feet get more and more articulate. Company principals Jennie Somogyi and the recently departed Peter Boal began their careers as little Marie and her Prince; any child can dream of growing up to be the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

The winner of the jury prize this year is Paule Baillargeon's masterly Jean-Pierre Perrault: Giant Steps. Baillargeon's palette is as dark and light-pierced as the life and work of Perrault, the greatly gifted Quebecois choreographer who died of cancer as the film was being completed. The works, especially his superb Joe, focus on the lonely crowd—a mass of humanity in dark overcoats, pulled-down hats, and black boots—whose footsteps (the only music) resound in the massive sets Perrault (artist-architect as well as choreographer) designed, with rhythm the key to their guarded emotions. The tenderness he felt for these people seeps into his dances and can break your heart.

 
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