Dance on Film- Now Playing Everywhere

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Dance films have become the mainstay of dance companies trying to survive an industry in limbo while waiting for it to be safe enough for theaters to reopen for both performers and audiences. Virtual screens have become the “new” venues with a bounty of dance performances to choose from. Dance companies are broadcasting productions filmed in previous seasons, and increasingly, smaller troupes are filming scaled-down current performances or offering Livestream broadcasts.

Under normal circumstances, dance on film is already its own complex art form. A live dance performance’s artistry can be completely elusive and bled of its energy and magic when converted to onscreen. There are as many approaches as there are filmmakers. It is a collaborative genre that requires a lot of forethought to be effective. It is a challenge for choreographers and dancers trained for the live theater to now navigate.

Listed below are some films and scenes that display various dances on film templates. These are subjective favorites, and hopefully, choices that showcase an array of cinematographic and choreographic dialogues intertwined with a broad sampling of dance vocabulary.

In any given year, dance films of merit are a rarity, in 2020, there were two films that were distinguished.

And Then We Danced
directed by Levan Akin and cinematography Lisabi Fridell

This dance drama confronts artistic expression, GLTBQ+ oppression, and violent homophobia in Georgia’s former Soviet bloc and Catholic orthodoxy country.  Levin Akin, a Swedish emigre, was inspired by the 2013 first Pride march that brought 500 GLBTQ+ citizens to publicly demonstrate for the film to be screened and were met by 20,000 counter-protesters organized by the country’s Catholic church and government.

Akin tells the story of Merab, a young gay man (Levan Gelbakhiani) who tries to survive the ranks of the National Georgian Ensemble that performs traditional works that symbolized a united national identity for generations.  Its rigid and technically demanding choreography prohibited any variation or expression that didn’t evoke cultural mores and traditional roles.

The story of Merab offers insight into the daily rigors of a semi-professional traditional dance company in Georgia, part of the communist Russian block. Merab is constantly under the scrutiny of the steeled eye of the state choreographer/director who thinks he is too ‘expressive’ (read too feminine). “You must be a nail,” he shouts at him.

In fact, the men are at times in nail-toe point shoes, emphasizing the stoic male authority. His partner is a young woman he had been paired with since they were ten.  Of course, Merab must pass for straight in his training, on stage, backstage in the locker room with the other men, and at home in his depressing apartment surrounded by his mother, grandmother, and loutish brother. 

His closeted existence meets a breaking point when a dancer from another troupe is brought in as a ringer to audition for the national company.  The spot had opened up when one of the male dancers was kicked off after being ‘caught’ with another male.

Remarkably, this film was actually produced and filmed in Georgia. It is one of those rare events that resulted in Georgians rallying around it as emblematic of pro-gay activism.

The authenticity of Georgian traditional dance techniques, artistry, symbolism, and culture, is beautifully rendered, as are the dancer-actors’ performances in this film. The many scenes in the studio tell these characters’ emotional journeys, with sweaty close-ups and long takes of no dialogue vis-a-vis the rigid social order of the national dance.

director-writer Alla Kovgan; Director of Photography Mko Malkhasyan

Documentary filmmaker Alla Kovgan’s Cunningham is simply one of the most compelling dance films of this or any other year.  It is a masterclass of dance film aesthetic, combining archival footage, and a showcase for what visually works well for contemporary audiences.

Cunningham’s studio footage is sequenced with performances by the most recent company dancers, filmed worldwide.  

Altogether film excerpts from 25 works are presented. Haltingly, these location dance shoots were pre-pandemic but symbolically speak to our world now. Presciently these cityscapes, forests, coastlines, and historical sites span both Europe and the United States.  

It is no surprise that the archival footage of Cunningham performing and in-studio with his dancers is completely engrossing. His groundbreaking aesthetic reframed the whole concept of what dance is – “Dance is an event that is not allusive or representational, not reflexive to the music or soundscape in any deliberate way.”  Merce represents his dance philosophy and techniques in his wry and most basic terms.  Hearing Merce getting grilled by a journalist about what his dances are and responding, “I can’t describe them, I just do them.” is one of many priceless moments of this film.  

Totem Ancestor (1944) is the first solo work shown with Merce dancing in an outdoor public space. The revival is then danced in a futuristic (empty) theater.  Suite for Two is danced in a garden embankment and vaulted atrium. The camera moves with unobtrusive intimacy, creating the effect of the dancer existing as part of the environment. The astounding ensemble ballet is in a real forest, juxtaposed with the film of Rainforest with Andy Warhol’s silver pillows floating around.

A documentary about the elaborate technical and artistic aspects of filming Summerspace brings full dimension to the surreal pointillist set and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. It is simply spellbinding on film.

White Nights
Taylor Hackford, director; David Walkins, cinematographer

White Night was created with choreography for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, which flies back and forth between ballet and jazz virtuosity. A ballet movie disguised as an iron curtain thriller, Hines plays an ex-pat Vietnam Vet who defected to Russia and to keep Baryshnikov’s character from escaping to the west. All of this intrigue, of course, is secondary to seeing these dance superstars perform.

The film actually opens with a seven-minute performance of French choreographer Roland Petit’s 1946 dark masterpiece Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, with a homoerotic libretto by Jean Cocteau scored to a Passacaglia and Fugue by Bach, that provides a masterclass on how to film ballet.  Resurrected by Mikhail Baryshnikov at the American Ballet Theatre in 1975 and 1985 for White Nights, it was brilliantly filmed at the Bristol Hippodrome, by cinematographer Watkins (Chariots of Fire) and director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer, and a Gentleman).

Strictly Ballroom

Baz Lurhman’s charming dance farce about ballroom culture in Australia is packed with hilarious characters and fantastic dance sequences.  Virtuoso ballroom star Scott (Paul Mecurio) has outgrown the Grand Prix competition’s strict rules and busts out with new steps.  Meanwhile, he is the principal teacher in his family’s studio business. One of the worse students is Fran (Tara Morice), secretly a dynamic Latin dancer who shows him the real moves liberating him from show dance.  They fall in love, but he leaves her at the dance alter when his old partner returns. She gives up until he realizes that everything is rigged in the competition, and together they triumph, doing more culturally authentic paso doble. Lurhman vamps all of the conventions of dance-films with hilarity in this viewpoint of competitive ballroom culture.

La La Land
directed by Damien Chazelle; Linus Sandgren, cinematography

Choreographer Mandy Moore gave 2016’s La La Land with its boffo opening of a traffic jam pedestrian dance ensemble on the L.A. freeway, the effect of being stalled on the road to success and dancing out the road rage, inspiring a joyous populous catharsis. La la land indeed! Meanwhile, Moore’s less effective choreography were the duets by stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. However charming, it was a missed classic dance film scene. Moore wanted them to convey emotion at the cost of any core technique (interesting choice narratively), which shows that a little goes a long way.

Bob Fosse cuts to the dance chase

It is hard to appreciate what Bob Fosse fully achieved in film because he leaned heavily on editing, which can distract from his own choreography. But observe how he gets out of his own way for the seven-minute dance opening of 1979’s All That Jazz. It is fair to be jaded that Fosse relies upon editing, but his lens, sense of cinematic rhythm, and what it can do narratively on film is highly effective. After the underappreciated dance scenes in Sweet Charity, Fosse upped his commercial ante cinematically, sometimes for better and for worse. His most admired film is Cabaret, which is exciting dance wise, but full of flashy editing and the erratic dance charisma of Liza Minnelli.

Fleet Dive barre

The Cohen Brother’s 2015 Hollywood parody Hail Caesar portrays Chatum Tatum as a sailor on his last night on leave before he and his mates ship out. Their rendition of No Dames perhaps indicating they are ready to swim in the gay seas.  The single joke doesn’t run out of steam because the tap is choreographically liberated in its lusty precision. It also acknowledges the generations of gay sailors & dancers who could only be themselves in louche dives.  Hard to miss the gayness, but the scene could easily have been spliced into the 50s classic On The Town, fitting right in dance wise, even with some raunchy sex jokes. Cohen’s parody decodes of gay stereotyping onscreen. It also was an expose on camera tricks, breakaway sets, high angles, and rhythmic editing, bringing the whole artistic fleet in ala MGM.

The Red Shoes

There are a few dance films that remain in a category by themselves. Of course, the first is Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, with its 18-minute ballet performance of the Hans Christian Anderson story about a girl with magical red shoes that leads to a harrowing dance of death.  Leonide Massine plays the ballet master in a fictionalized version of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and dances the role of the shoemaker in the Red Shoes ballet. Massine was a famed member of the Ballets Russe, and his Red Shoes Ballet is derivative of the modernist styles and psychological narrative.

The Red Shoes ballet, choreographed by Robert Helpmann, is epic in its defining and daring dance/film language. The overriding achievement by the filmmakers was not upstaging a riveting performance by Royal Ballet star Moira Shearer. Seventy-five years later, it still astounds in its technical artistry and emotional rawness. 

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