Filming dance is a tricky business, with many moving parts. It calls for complex creative collaborations among people with diverse skills, and often requires a lot of space and piles of money. Add in the exigencies of a worldwide pandemic and you have a recipe for chaos. It’s a kind of miracle that this year’s Dance on Camera Festival, playing February 10 to 13 at Lincoln Center, is very strong.
Co-curated by Michael Trusnovec, Shawn Bible, and Nolini Barretto, of the Dance Films Association (DFA), the venerable festival, now in its 51st year, assembles 30 movies, long and short; documentaries; and filmed choreographies from around the world into more than a dozen programs, almost all rewarding attention. At least half are works by women. Only one of these, the festival’s opening feature, explicitly credits the organization Women Make Movies, but the female form, women’s feelings, and a certain sensuality permeate the whole enterprise.
Astutely assembled, Dance on Camera (DoC) opens with Call Me Dancer, a film about men made by women and nurtured over years of preparation by DFA Labs, the association’s own work-in-progress initiative. Leslie Shampaine and Pip Gilmour’s 84-minute feature documents the emergence of Manish Chauhan, a young performer from Mumbai, son and grandson of taxi drivers, whose roots are in break dancing but who is lured into a ballet studio in his early twenties and soon falls under the spell of an imposing Israeli teacher, Yehuda Maor, who grew too tall for a ballet career but made his mark as a modern dancer and master instructor. Over 70 when they meet, having performed and taught in Israel, San Francisco, and New York before settling in Mumbai, Maor recognizes Manish’s gift and finds him the resources and connections he needs to build a career, even with his late start.
Call Me Dancer follows Manish as he trains and struggles and meditates on his obligation to his close family, who live two hours outside Mumbai. Maor locates a patron who covers Manish’s living costs; an offer of film work allows him to contribute to his family’s expenses and eventually pay for his sister’s wedding. The film juxtaposes dramatic studio footage with street scenes and interludes in Maor’s modest digs, where, as time passes, Manish winds up caring for his aging teacher. “Dancers are unique human beings,” opines Maor, who has shoehorned another of his Mumbai prodigies into the school at London’s Royal Ballet. “In three years, we’ve done what takes nine!” he exclaims, speaking of preparing these lads for professional training. (That dancer, Amir, is now with the Miami City Ballet.)
Maor sends Manish to Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, where the young Hindu observes, “They don’t want princes … they just want normal human beings.” He lives on a kibbutz, learns some Hebrew, and introduces his fellow dancers to the spicy wonders of Indian cuisine. We watch him nurse himself back from a shoulder injury, look after the aging Maor back in Mumbai, and, finally, travel, mid-pandemic, to New York and then to Washington, D.C., where he performs at the Kennedy Center. When you watch this feel-good film, stay through the delightful credits — the folks behind the cameras get up and dance.
Call Me Dancer represents the strongest slice of the films on offer: works that engage the politics and economics of the dance world. These films often include talking as well as moving; they stretch the genre, the performers, even the audience. Another subset includes filmed dances. When a choreographer displays a dance, it’s up to each spectator to choose where to look, and how much to take in of the action spread across the stage. When that same choreographer allows her work to be filmed, however, the cinematographer makes that decision, directing the viewer’s eye to the choices made with the lens. The collaboration between filmmaker Jeremy Jacob and choreographer Pam Tanowitz is a prime and lovely example of this process. Their 26-minute I was waiting for the echo of a better day, filmed outdoors on the campus of Bard College and a highlight of Saturday evening’s Program 6, of shorts by local artists, situates some of my favorite dancers (Melissa Toogood, Lindsey Jones, and several others), in Reid & Harriet’s bright, translucent costumes, among trees, plants, and stone walls on the banks of the Hudson River.
Another standout on that program is Baye & Asa’s 12-minute Suck It Up, which explores male responses to a barrage of gestures of toxic masculinity — it’s both funny and very sad. Two of the works in this festival recently won awards at Dance Camera West’s (DCW) 2023 festival, held last month in Los Angeles. Bridget Murnane’s Bella, the main event on DoC’s second program, won for best feature documentary; it profiles Bella Lewitzky (1916–2004), a pioneering California choreographer who forged a career even while quitting several high-profile assignments. The primary muse of Lester Horton, who established modern dance on the West coast in the 1930s, Lewitzky left him to develop her own work — he never spoke to her again. The daughter of a socialist painter, she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in the ’50s, and refused to name names. “I’m a dancer, not a singer,” she famously told reporters. Appointed dean of dance at the newly formed California Institute of the Arts, she quit when she realized the campus didn’t have any performing spaces, which her troupe desperately needed. In the late ’80s, an attempt by wealthy Angelenos to build her a downtown dance center went south when the moneyed supporters demanded a greater role for ballet, and she “knew I had to leave.” The painstakingly assembled building site is now a food court and parking garage. Lewitzky danced, herself, until she was 62.
In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts instituted an anti-obscenity pledge, required of all recipients of federal arts money. (“None of the funds … may be used to promote, disseminate, or produce materials which … may be considered obscene, including, but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts which … do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”) Lewitzky refused to sign it, printed it on T-shirts with a red line through the text, and sued the NEA. She won, and eventually got the money, but the struggle was the beginning of the end of her company, which closed when she retired, in 1997.
Additional highlights of the festival include the other DCW winner, Ghostly Labor, a 13-minute film by John Jota Leaños and Vanessa Sanchez depicting, in tap dance, flamenco, and other percussive forms, the history of agricultural labor in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, with musicians and dancers deployed in the fields they till. Another is Maurya Kerr’s 23-minute Saint Leroi, a surreal meditation on Black history, violence, and American decay and a powerful indictment of racism. Future Futures, a 38-minute work by Brian J. Johnson and Vancouver’s Company 605, set on and around the campus of Simon Fraser University, is a chilling evocation of where our digital obsessions may lead us: rigid bodies dissolve into pixels and burst into flame.
There’s much more, a lot of it very good. An all-access pass for the four-day event is available for $79 ($39 for students). Use one to see the dozen or more programs, culminating, on Monday, with a 40th-anniversary screening of Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.