At the 11th annual Dance on Camera Festival, a hardy dance-film buff can attend 15 different programs, learning the many ways in which a merger can spark a completely new artwork or preserve and transform an existing one.
Annette von Wangenheim’s 2006 Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World assembles a terrific array of old footage that shows Baker first as a scampy young comedic dancer, delighting Paris with her rapidly gyrating hips, rolling eyes, and charming grin, then as a soignée chanteuse. The loving tribute also shows Baker doing her bit for the French resistance during World War II and combating prejudice in her native America.
Other festival documentaries introduce social issues. Mila Aung -Thwin’s Bone (2005) chronicles the mostly good-natured cultural clashes that occur when Willy Tsao invites Canadian choreographer Nadine Thouin to make a piece for his Beijing Modern Dance Company. In Movement (R)Evolution Africa (2006), by Joan Frosch and Alla Kovgin, eight choreographers from seven African nations explain their struggles to create works that reflect their heritage and current dilemmas that face their people. For shattering, deeply conscientious dancing alone, this film is a knockout.
Patrick Bensard’s Lucinda Childs (2006), focuses more narrowly—approaching this postmodern choreographer’s history, aesthetic, working process, and collaborations with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass in ways that reflect the austere beauty of her work. Often, he simply films her talking on the porch of her house on Martha’s Vineyard or laying out her papers on a table—the setting as luminous and uncluttered as her dances and her mind.
Dominique Delouche’s Serge Lifar Musagéte (2005) memorializes the dancer and choreographer who directed the Paris Opera Ballet from 1929 to 1958. There’s splendid footage of handsome Lifar in his prime. But you get the greatest sense of how he combined ballet steps with archaic arm gestures and seductive stances (wrists flexed, please, hips thrust forward, head thrown back) in scenes Delouche filmed in 1988. It’s thrilling to see creakily aged Serge Peretti try to put some ferocity into a combat between two very young male dancers in a Lifar ballet and to watch Attilio Labis and Nina Vyroubova coach leading Paris Opera dancers in roles they created decades earlier. Whether seen as a dewy étoile in archival clips or white-haired and fleshier, Vryoubova lights up the screen. Passion molds her body; the splendidly trained younger dancers look stiff and lightweight in comparison.
Some dance-film collaborations focus primarily on poetic imagery. The very pregnant Sara Joel, filmed underwater in Rapt (by Joel and Jody Oberfelder), becomes as sleek as a fish, darting through the arches formed by the trailing red gown she has discarded. Amy Greenfield’s 2005 Dark Sequins fractures and layers shots of a dancer’s naked flesh, her whipping red hair, and the sequined garments she discards to build an almost claustrophobically seductive vision of Salome.
Film magic can also convey inner states, as it does in New Zealand choreographer Shona McCullagh’s fine Break (2006). A family—father, mother, nine-year-old son—play-fights in the fields, but when tension mounts between husband and wife, gravity is disrupted. Ursula Robb suddenly flips to hang upside down above Thomas Kiwi; walking a highway’s centerline, away from her gravely watching child, she turns horizontal but never hits the ground.
Film’s ability to switch locations engenders searing effects in Dancing Figure/Táncalak (2003) by Hungarian filmmaker Ferenc Grunwalsky. Choreographer Andrea Ladányi, her breasts and pelvis wrapped in clear plastic, twists and stretches in what might be an abandoned convent—turning weightless in a coffin-like trough, crawling over gritty floors, lashing around in a crypt among swaddled figures. Her explorations are increasingly interrupted by World War II images: dim, shuffling crowds and explosions that are as beautiful as they are terrible.