Audiences at this year’s Dance on Camera festival have had plenty of opportunity to ponder the camera’s diverse approaches to dancing—probing history, documenting performances, spying on dance notables, and doing creative cavorting of its own. Forty films—ranging from exuberant experiments to earnest eulogies—were grouped in 14 programs (I saw six).
Cinematic quality is not always an issue. Who minds fuzzy 16-millimeter footage if it shows the great Russian dancer Olga Spessivtzeva (1895–1991) bounding with uncanny, innocent delight through Giselle, Act I ? (That passage animates Sleeping Princess, Ludovic Kennedy’s 1959 documentary juxtaposing Spessivtzeva’s art with her descent into schizophrenia.) Nor does it matter that a decades- ago, black-and-white vision of Felia Doubrovska—the original Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son—is a bit jumpy; she skips in to teach class at his School of American Ballet with both the delight of a girl and the elegance she was famous for (Virginia’s Brooks’s 2008 Doubrovska Remembered, in process since the 1970s).
Biographical documentaries tend to follow a predictable format: interviews with the subject (if still living), interviews with those who know/knew him or her, glimpses of rehearsals, performances, and classes. The subject shapes the approach. In Yelena Demikovsky’s Happy to Be So, Oleg Briansky and Mireille Briane, seated side by side on a couch, laugh heartily over the ups and downs of their careers and their more than 50 years together. Wrangling in their kitchen, teaching in their ballet school in Saratoga Springs, and mounting The Nutcracker in Pennsylvania, they’re endearingly open to the camera. Their voices alone identify the photographs and film footage charting their lives and careers (mostly his as a terrifically handsome premier danseur in Europe). For much of Anne Linsel’s 2006 Pina Bausch, Bausch, careworn but serene, fixes her pale blue eyes on the interviewer and speaks seriously and humbly about art-making and her struggles with it. Because, as she tells us, her dancers’ individual contributions are crucial to her pieces, Linsel has several of them talk and shows them in archival film clips. Whenever Bausch developed material he created, says veteran Bausch performer Lutz Forster, he “felt rather beautifully used.”
Gwendolyn Cates’s Water Flowing Together, which will be screened on January 11 and 18, is a laudatory, often touching, expertly produced portrait of the charismatic New York City Ballet principal Jock Soto, who retired in 2005. Colleagues praise him lavishly. In the thick of rehearsing, teaching classes, cooking (a field he’s moving into), and talking to others, Soto occasionally turns to the camera and acknowledges its presence with an aside. That intimate camera looks in on his visit to meet his Navajo mother’s extended family and accompanies him to Puerto Rico to see his father’s father. Rehearsal sequences emphasize the heat and sensuality of a pas de deux with an eye-grabbing flow of close-ups. (It can be frustrating to see only Wendy Whelan’s armpit and arching torso and Soto’s strong hands; luckily, full-body performance clips are included.)
The Bentfootes (2007), by Todd Alcott and Kriota Willberg, satirizes all such bio-documentaries. Not only was the fictitious Susan Bentfoote (1966–2005) a mediocre choreographer (the best the talking heads come up with is that she had “good energy” and “did what she had to do”), so were the generations of Bentfootes whose dances the deceased was reconstructing. Willberg, as herself, reluctantly takes over that task at the request of Susan’s infuriatingly naïve widower (James Urbaniak). I’m particularly fond of the Bentfoote who so admired his friend Ulysses S. Grant that he based square-dance calls on dispatches from the Civil War battlefields.
One of the most arresting film portraits on view is Pierre Coulibeuf’s 1999 Balkan Baroque (showing January 11). The extraordinary Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic entices us through her career in wayward spoken fragments, while aspects of both work and life mingle in cryptic, slowly developing images. The pristine settings contrast vividly with Abramovic’s aesthetic of pain. We see her in an all-white space, stabbing rapidly between her fingers (a Balkan game she turned into a performance piece). In a later close-up of her hand, a rivulet of blood stains the purity.
Balkan Baroque has a surreal aspect, as does Pavillon Noir, on which Coulibeuf collaborated with choreographer Anjelin Preljocaj. Here, a vast, glass-rich office building becomes a site for disruption. The business is never explained (the Chinese and trainees are mentioned), and every casual interaction between the young office workers evolves startlingly beyond casualness. A man reaches across a desk to shake hands and slides across it to end up in someone’s lap. You don’t think “dancers”; you think “fantasy.”
Dreams and fantasies are splendid fodder for both dancing and filmmaking. In Pawel Partyka’s charming short, Fantastic Flower Shop (2001), little black-wire puppets pluck blossoms for tutus and hats, find love, and perform expert numbers (including flamenco). Wim Vandekeybus’s gripping Here-After probes the nightmare memories of a mysterious, oppressed community. Men rise out of low-tide sand to become pillars beneath three standing women. Women nourish men by grabbing them, bending them backward, and spitting water into their open mouths. Killings and deaths are hinted at in images and words as fleeting and changeable as dreams.
Dancers in open air often look out of place, but in one of the most moving short films I saw, Isabel Rocamora’s Horizon of Exile, two dancers achingly embody the testimonies of Iraqi women exiles. Wearing heavy, black-cotton dresses, whose rustling is almost the only sound, the two face a great expanse of desert to reach the border and rest in a hellish gray landscape of bubbling hot springs. Slowly rolling and twisting in the barrenness, they express with great economy both the pain of leaving and the pain of staying.
Fine movies of stage dancing are rare. But Vadim Derbenyov and Yuri Grigorovich’s take on the latter’s ballet Spartacus (a 1975 film restored to wide-screen splendor in 2007) improves upon the stage version. Not only do we get close-ups of such Bolshoi stars as the magnificent Vladmir Vasilyev, Natalya Bessmertnova, Maris Liepa, and Nina Timofeyeva, but the somewhat cheesy choreography is enhanced by cuts, dissolves, double exposures, and camera angles. We don’t see the valiant leader of a Roman slave rebellion rush toward the lens to attack amassed soldiers—their hulking backs fill the screen instead. A cut, timed to a climax in Aram Khatchaturian’s score, then reveals his body held aloft on a pillar of crossed spears. That’s movies, folks.