Normand takes account of Russia’s ardent female ballet fans and onetime wannabe ballerinas who didn’t make the cuts. In one very affecting scene, the charming Obraztsova comes out of the stage door—not on her way home, just to meet her admirers. She danced the lead in Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet today. One youngish woman has tears in her eyes. A white-haired regular lists the Juliets she has seen, beginning with the great Galina Ulanova; Obraztsova, she says, brought something to the role she’s never seen before. She offers a clumsily wrapped package—something she knew the young dancer wanted: a copy of The Great Gatsby.

Nothing could be further from the Kirov ballerinas and their quest for perfection than the performer in Sophie Fiennes’s 2006 VSPRS Show and Tell. Fiennes and her camera show lengthy clips from Alain Platel’s astonishing and shattering piece, set to terrific music based on Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers for the Blessed Virgin. According to an article in the English-language Japanese magazine Metropolis, Platel told composer Fabrizio Casol to “contaminate Monteverdi’s purity, infusing it with a more oriental, more Jewish, more black-sounding quality, in brief: to make it sound more contemporary.”

Ulyana Lopatkina of the Kirov in "Swan Lake"
The Film Society of Lincoln Center / First Run Features
Ulyana Lopatkina of the Kirov in "Swan Lake"


Dance on Camera Festival 2009
Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center
January 6 through 17

The band plays on what looks like an iceberg of draped white fabric set against a glacier of white rags that extends across the back of the stage. The pure voice of extraordinary soprano Claron McFadden at times degenerates into wailing and moaning as she picks up the dancers’ tribulations. Platel says in the film that he has worked with people “with all kinds of difficulties” and is drawn to the fine line between the normal and the abnormal. The dancers of his Les Ballets C de la B, based in Ghent, Belgium, do not address the camera about their career aspirations; their answers to questions presumably posed by Platel reveal what they feel while performing the work, what it triggered in them in terms of memories from their own experiences. We also see audience members speaking out—very intelligently—in post-performance discussions.

Fiennes’s film begins with a man, his back to us, shuddering, and perhaps fumbling with his clothes. You wonder if he’s peeing. Maybe vomiting. Masturbating? When the camera shows him from the front, he’s cramming a piece of flatbread—like a huge pita—into his mouth, into one eye. He doesn’t swallow anything, just tears off pieces and throws them on the floor. A woman enters, staggering around on her red high heels and angrily calling out famous names. Where are these saviors? Why don’t they come? When she yells for James Bond, a man who’s been convulsively undressing and dressing suddenly strikes a cocky pose. As others enter the stage, we see more forms of compulsive behavior. One athletic man and a woman with the flexibility of a contortionist lock their splayed limbs around each other in bizarre ways. The camera swings into close-ups, drops performers out of the bottom of the frame, cuts to a musician, and veers back. The atmosphere Fiennes creates is claustrophobic—a vision of howling mouths and clawing hands—except for the few times she shoots the whole stage from the rear.

The performers’ intelligence and sensitivity provide a startling contrast to their unbridled performing (the choreography comes as much from them as from Platel). Archival clips of mental patients and Africans in a trance ceremony show where some of Platel’s images came from (one in particular that shows a child rubbing his face obsessively). What can barely be glimpsed in Fiennes’s film is that sometimes the performers are in unison, that they have bouts of dancing in which their wildness is somewhat controlled. After a passage in which they furiously but surreptitiously masturbate, they fall flat on their faces, as if on a signal, and hump the floor.

In the discussions among performers, they often refer to the “ecstasy.” I’m not sure we feel this. We see these people’s shuddering and jerking and crying out escalate until they’re drenched in sweat and exhausted; we see their eyes and hands lifted searchingly. But we don’t sense fulfillment. There’s just a quick glimpse of them in the background starting to climb the fabric wall, with one upside-down man reaching for those below. (In an online review of the film in Arts Journal, John Rockwell, who saw Platel’s piece onstage, wrote that he felt the redemptive aspect of Platel’s work was underemphasized in Fiennes’s film; you can also read her response.)

Whatever the flaws of either the staged work or the film, they offer a frightening glimpse into the human condition and the mysterious circuitry of our brains and bodies. The brave dancer-creators listed on the company’s website are Quan Bui Ngoc, Mathieu Desseigne Ravel, Lisi Estaràs, Emile Josse, Iona Kewney, Samuel Lefeuvre, Mélanie Lomoff, Ross McCormack, Elie Tass, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, and Hyo Seung Ye.

Five other festival films (including a two-hour documentary on the career of Jerome Robbins) will be shown over the course of Saturday afternoon and evening and on Sunday afternoon.

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