The man loves to dance! He feels happy, empowered. And what is the dancing that so thrills him? A Swiss traditional form called the Bödälä. Who knew? Bödälä, by Gitta Gsell, an entry in the 2011 Dance on Camera Festival, shows enthusiasts of this dance doing it and talking about their zest for it. The Bödälä is a couple dance. The man, barely lifting his feet off the floor, stamps rapidly and rhythmically. Hard. (Committed experts add extra wood to the heels of their shoes.) He lifts one arm high, and the woman holding his hand turns smoothly under it like a top, while he inches around her.
That’s all there is to it. But to the people who inhabit green alpine meadows, stylistic distinctions abound, and competitions are held. Experts discourse on the dance’s possible ritual roots (the Earth traveling around the sun perhaps), and purists deplore the few spunky women who do the stamping and ask their partners to spin. Gsell’s charming film also shows a more flamboyant variant, in which a man performs wild stunts to impress his mostly serene partner. And, enamored of foot rhythms, a Swiss dancer trained in flamenco abandons that tradition to dance on a special floor of wooden “keys” that functions like a xylophone, giving her stamping a a range of possible tones.
The festival’s prize-winning documentary, The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia (2009), introduces American audiences to another unfamiliar tradition—this one on the verge of vanishing. This beautiful film is also a sad one, and its makers, Inna Sahakyan and Arman Yeritsyan, often shoot upward to show a lone shadow of a man against a darkly cloudy sky. Thirty years ago, we learn, there were 20 tightrope shows traveling from village to village, setting up their ropes—sometimes as high as 20 meters—and dancing elegantly along them. Vintage films show admiring crowds and startling feats (jumping into splits, riding a bicycle along the rope). Once too, the dance had a spiritual connection; it brought the dancer, and perhaps the watchers, closer to heaven.
As the film begins, Zhora and Knynaz, two men in their seventies, former virtuosos on the wire—friends and salty rivals—work with their protégées, Hovsep and Mamikon, complaining that these boys, adopted as small children from orphanages, don’t have the polish or the zest that the men themselves had in their prime. We see the young soloists practicing on stubbly hillside fields, amid horses and sheep, traveling in falling-apart vans, and performing for scanty crowds. The older boy, Mamikon, gives up the art for a better-paying job. Zhora dies, and, as the film ends, his student, an accomplished 15-year-old who has been rope-dancing since he was four years old, wonders if he can keep it up. Yet all he knows is to climb up to the rope, set his feet along it, and—whether or not anyone is watching—dance.
Two very different documentaries were shown in Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre, one of four theaters involved in the festival. One film celebrates a pioneer of American modern dance, another shows a contemporary European form being carried in a new direction. The first, A New Dance for America: The Choreography, Teachings and Legacy of Doris Humphrey, was written and directed by Ina Hahn, who heads the Windhover Performing Arts Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. As a young dancer, Hahn performed in works by Humphrey and took her dance composition class. Humphrey was a kind of lodestar for her, and for many others—guiding them to see dance as the expression of, and yearning for, a harmonious universe.
The text that Hahn wrote and speaks is understandably reverent and sometimes a bit too effusive, but her film brings to the foreground the brilliance of this underappreciated choreographer (Humphrey didn’t have the long life and self-promoting skills of her rival and onetime colleague, Martha Graham). In the film, Stephanie Clemens, director of the Illinois company MOMENTA, critic Marcia B. Siegel (author of the absorbing Humphrey biography, Days on Earth), and Carla Maxwell, the artistic director of the company founded by Humphrey’s protégée, José Limón, make it clear that Humphrey’s ideas about musicality, dance architecture, and resonant form, as well as her physical principle of fall and recovery, are still vital and have continued to influence choreographers, dancers, and dance students.
There’s footage of the lovely young Humphrey dancing alone and with Charles Weidman, her dancing partner and co-founder, in the late 1920s, of the company that bore their names. Other film clips give a sense of her great works—whether performed by students, by contemporary professional dancers, or by members of the original José Limón Company, for which she served as artistic director. Fervent, dedicated, a humanist, Humphrey created stirring, often fierce dances that more people should know about.
Life-affirming in a very different way is the 2010 German film Dancing Dreams, awarded the Special Jury Prize by Dance on Camera 2011. Written and directed by Anne Linsel, with Rainer Hoffman as its director of photography, the film sensitively documents the rehearsals and performance of an unusual project. In 2008, the late Pina Bausch selected 40 teenagers from around Wuppertal (where her company is based) to learn and perform one of her major works, the 1978 Kontakthof (a few years earlier, she had mounted it on a cast of people over 65).
These adolescents are not ambitious fledgling performers. Most of them have never danced before. They are a diverse lot; some come from immigrant families; one boy is a gypsy. They have problems of their own, and some have dark family histories. It’s deeply touching to see two memorable former members of Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal—Josephine Ann Endicott and Benedicte Billiet—coax and urge and press them into an ensemble. When the young people talk to the camera or speak up in rehearsal, they aren’t shy. But they’re nervous about their bodies and about showing extreme emotion. They sometimes say they can’t do it— can’t walk toward the audience with fierce, love-me stares; can’t run, screaming with laughter around and around the room; can’t disrobe, even partially. One girl featured prominently, the slender blond Joy, explains to the filmmaker that what’s asked of her is very difficult; she has never felt a boy’s hands on her body. And Kontakthof depicts a place where men come to meet women (and vice versa)!
The kids are gawky and shy and sometimes difficult. The camera often catches Endicott and Billiet conferring in undertones and figuratively wringing their hands. But they’re remarkably patient and loving. To help the talented girl who has to do the wild laughter, Endicott encouragingly runs hand in hand with her, howling too, even though she holds her evidently back all the while and is out of breath at the end. You watch these young people grow stronger and braver and more committed as rehearsals progress (every Saturday for months), until Bausch herself—frail and gentle—comes to give some final polish and choose the first cast. It’s like watching a rite of passage that culminates in the warm applause of an audience that includes their families and friends, and the performers emerge from it subtly, ineffably changed.
Dancing Dreams can be purchased at firstrunfeatures.com. A New Dance for America is available at dancehorizons.com. At this point, neither Bödälä nor The Last Dancer in Armenia has an American distributor, but the latter can be found on Facebook, accessed through video.pbs.org/video/1607145692.