Though dance film has improved exponentially in recent years, due in part to ever smaller, ever cheaper equipment, there’s still the problem that, when recording choreography, film offers but a pale shadow of the real thing. Among the 24 items in this winter’s dance film orgy, the strongest are the documentaries, which provide backstory and alternate the human voice with excerpts from theatrical performance.
The sharpest and most engaging of these is Michael Blackwood’s hour-long Streb: Pop Action, a close-up of daredevil choreographer Elizabeth Streb that reveals her questing intelligence and the roots of her fascination with in-your-face, upside-the-head movement verging on the brutal (think downhill skiing and motorcycles), while letting you watch her at work. Also terrific is Jocelyn Ajami’s politically astute Queen of the Gypsies: A Portrait of Carmen Amaya (1913-1963). At 80 minutes it feels short, ending abruptly with this stunning Roma artist’s premature death. Interviews conducted in three languages with surviving friends and relatives, plus clips from live performance and the flamenco pioneer’s many Hollywood features, evoke a woman whose passion for dance remade an art form even as it destroyed her body.
Small-scale doc Igor and Svetlana focuses on a pair of Russian ballroom champions now living and working in Columbus, Ohio. Made by former Paul Taylor dancer Victoria Uris, it features thirtyish Igor Iskhokov, who teaches calculus at Ohio State when he’s not out winning medals (“we’re dealing with shapes, with the physics and mechanics of performance,” he observes, describing the way his two passions interlock), and his reticent young wife Svetlana, who carry the ballroom baton for a new generation.
Shorts range from the silly to the strong; don’t miss Michael Cole’s four-minute Hyper Alarm Dance, which transforms the LED numerals on his bedside alarm into an animated fantasia of clocks and bodies in motion. Guguletu, by director-producer Kristin Pichaske, is a powerful mini-doc about black youngsters from South African townships who are drawn into ballet training, a process that alters their lives in major and subtle ways.
A pair of films about African dance contrast didactic documentary with more freewheeling approaches. Director Benoit Dervaux’s lively Black Spring intersperses choreography by Heddy Mallen with contemporary African street scenes; African Dance: Sand, Drum, and Shostakovich is as overblown as its title, recording choreographers and their work during a Montreal festival of dances mostly seen here at the 1999 Lincoln Center Festival.
Only a historian, critic, or aspiring Balanchine dancer could love Music Dances: Balanchine Choreographs Stravinsky. Produced by the George Balanchine Foundation, it’s a priceless resource, juxtaposing historical footage of two 20th-century geniuses with clips of the original casts performing their ballets. At 96 minutes it’s also a crashing bore, a pedantic (albeit incredibly useful) lecture demonstration, by British scholar Stephanie Jordan and current NYCB dancers, of the way Balanchine illuminated Stravinsky’s scores, illustrated with sheet music highlighted to help us understand the contrapuntal and other strategies at work. Suzanne Farrell, one of the keepers of Balanchine’s flame in the 21st century, makes several appearances.
The festival’s longest fiction entry is the Irish Hit and Run, an adaptation of David Bolger’s stage work performed by CoisCeim Dance Theatre, to a score by Bell Helicopter. It’s violent and tedious both, but sequences shot in a derelict industrial building, all night and into a bright dawn, have a certain punk appeal.