Committing the “lively arts” to film is crucial to their survival, but fraught with hazards. Dance resists electronic recording, which favors legible action, talking heads, and clear narrative. Dance films that succeed unequivocally, like Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker, provide those touchstones. Mirra Bank’s new Last Dance, which records a difficult collaboration between author-illustrator Maurice Sendak and the Connecticut-based dance troupe Pilobolus, mirrors the year-in-the-life structure of Diamond’s movie. Whereas Diamond followed an autocratic choreographer, Paul Taylor, with whom he had a decades-long relationship, Bank has the delicate task of chronicling an encounter between a bunch of aging boomers—Pilobolus directors Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken—and the mature, brilliant Sendak, who wants to construct a dance, ultimately called A Selection, about the Holocaust.
The Piloboleans—especially Wolken, who comes off as an authoritarian jerk—seem callow and inarticulate next to Sendak, whose idée fixe is to commemorate the many relatives he lost to Hitler. In Last Dance, footage from staged Nazi films of concentration camp life is interpolated with rehearsal material and the testimony of a survivor. The beautiful dancers, four men and two women, improvise much of what becomes the choreography. Otis Cook stands still while Sendak draws a monster puppet on the groin of his white unitard. Last Dance is riveting when it focuses on the challenges of crossing a generational divide. The Pils have been choreographing for novice dance audiences since 1971; Sendak, though decades older, usually writes and draws for children, but he’s steeped in cultural references that leave the trio of jocks in the dust. The movie loses steam toward the end as it screens parts of A Selection, filmed at the Joyce in 1999. This kind of footage rarely works, even when, as here, it’s interfered with—slowed down and replayed arbitrarily.
Opera makes better cinema than dance does. Benoît Jacquot’s film of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca manages to be expansive and intimate at once, opening its “stage” into the landscape when appropriate (using woozy handheld video, a powerful contrast to the sharp studio shots) and zooming in on the bosom and furrowed brow of diva Angela Gheorgiu. The close-ups amplify the power of Puccini’s compact 1900 opera, set in Rome in 1800. The story’s four major figures all wind up dead: Gheorgiu’s Tosca, Tosca’s lover (played by Roberto Alagna, Gheorgiu’s real-life spouse), an escaped political prisoner (Maurizio Muraro), and the villain Scarpia (basso Ruggero Raimondi), a sadistic police chief who offers Tosca her mate’s freedom in exchange for sexual favors.
For technical reasons the wonderful singers lip-synch to their own voices, and the film cuts between the staged action and the recording session, where the process is shot in black-and-white. Two hours fly by—opera’s a pleasure when you don’t have to endure intermissions—and even a novice to the form comes away exhilarated.