Topping the list of summer dance films are two documentaries about visionary African American choreographers, both sensations on the festival circuits and now in theatrical release. Two unconventional foreign dance films became available on streaming platforms & DVD/BluRay this year, one a dance soap opera and one a dance biopic about a dance superstar. Rounding out this 2021 list is a true rarity, a beautifully filmed full ballet that captures both the choreography’s full dynamics and the dancers’ energy.
Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters (2021) |Rosalynde Le Blanc & Tom Hurwitz co-directors
‘Can You Bring It…” is an inspiring documentary by filmmakers Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz. It follows the creative circumstances and intent of Bill T. Jones’ signature work ‘D-Man in the Waters’, the first dance piece he created after the death of his lover and company co-founder Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS in 1988.
‘D-Man’ was Jones’ and his troupe’s stunning testament to the solidarity of the GLBTQ and arts communities in New York during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Jones scores (read imbues) the dance to Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, with dynamic, lyrical drive. The movement built out sorrow, hope, and survival.
LeBlanc is a former Jones/Zane company member and documentary blends footage of the premiere of the D-Man in 1988, a 2013 revival, as LeBlanc is teaching ‘D-Man to a group of dance students at Loyola Marymount University in 2017, one of the twenty-five colleges the Jones has permitted to do the piece.
Bill T. Jones comes into their rehearsal to talk to the students about what the work meant for the company’s survival. He created D-Man to reflect his personal grief and the community’s fight for survival and dignity at a catastrophic time. He challenges them to dance D-Man with the social issues of their generation. To imbue it with the heart and mind of what is righteous and true for them. This is an intimate and engrossing film about the power of this ballet, what it meant to dancers in a perilous time, and what this work represents for a new generation of dancers.
AILEY (2021) | Jamila Wignot, director
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Jamila Wignot’s AILEY has a theatrical release and will air on PBS’s American Masters series.
The film chronicles Ailey’s remarkable career as a choreographer and founder of one of the most successful and visionary contemporary dance companies globally, The Alvin Ailey American Dance. So much is known about his success, but Wignot makes this a more intimate portrait of the man, beyond his inestimable contributions to dance in America.
The film chronicles Ailey’s journey growing up in the Jim Crow south in the 30s, without a father and his mother scrubbing floors to keep food on the table. They moved to Los Angeles during WWII., his mother working in a factory. Ailey was a good student and on the football team, but he was encouraged to be a dancer by his friend, Carmen DeLavallade. They became dance partners with the dance teacher/choreographer Lester Horton, where Alvin and Carmen became stars of the troupe. And when Horton became unexpectedly ill, Ailey became the principal choreographer of the troupe.
Vitally, Wignot delves into Alvin Ailey’s personal life as a gay man, a portrait of his private life that was routinely avoided during his life and after his death from AIDS in 1989. Ailey grew up in an era of rabid cultural and government antigay oppression. Even for gay people in the arts, the closet door was still closed tight, lest public backlash.
But it is the footage of Ailey in the studio with his dancers that the man and his dance mind and commitment to his dancers, that the man and the artist are truly revealed. Archival footage of Ailey working in the studio and hearing him talk about his life and work from private recordings is laced throughout the film. Add to that Wignot’s performance footage from such Ailey classics as Revelations, Blues Suite, The River, and Cry.
Ailey took his company around the world, including a historical tour in Moscow. In the US, Black America galvanized to march, boycott, and protest in the struggle for civil rights. AAADT brought those issues of systemic injustice to the dance stage.
‘Cry’ was a solo first danced by Philadelphia native Judith Jamison, Ailey’s muse and his chosen successor to run the company. Cry is a 17-minute solo dedicated to, in Ailey’s words, “all Black women everywhere–especially our mothers.” The film features spellbinding footage of the premiere. Jamison describes the emotional and physical commitment it took to, as she put it, “live in those moments.
Throughout the film, Wignot circles back to Ailey studios in Manhattan, where Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris creates a new ballet based on Alvin Ailey’s life, struggles, and legacy on a new generation of Ailey dancers called Lazarus.
Written on Water (2021) |Pontus Lidberg, writer/director/choreographer
Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg wrote and directed ‘Written on Water’ in an ambitious attempt to break conventions and, as he puts it, ‘barriers’ of the ‘dance film’ genre. The story revolves around choreographer Alicia, smitten by Giovanni, an English dancer new to her company. She moves around her troupe of twelve, trying to set her work on the dancers and be casual about her attraction.
The film slogs along on this track in the studio as she keeps the dancers running through the same mechanical steps. Suddenly she is in a posh house, obsessing over flirting with a younger man with Karl (played by Lindberg), but they are also rehearsing a script about a love triangle.
Flash forward (or backward), you never really are sure that this turns into a lover’s triangle with Karl, and it’s hard to what is real, or a fantasy of a straight woman, gay man Karl and their menage with Giovanni, the versatile dancer in their company. Where Gio and Alicia have coffee and cuddles in her flat, Karl and Gio actually are further along with their affair, even hooking up in the ocean. But who really knows with this slippery storyline? Will Alicia get further with Gio emotionally? Is Gio truly bisexual? Will the other dancers ever be performance-ready?
Lidberg’s has created ballets for top companies worldwide and a missed opportunity to see more of his choreography, so the brief dance sequences that pop up in the film are swept up in one sudsy tide.
Nureyev: Lifting the Curtain | Jacqui & David Morris, directors (2019)
There have been many documentaries about dance superstar Rudolf Nureyev, but none tell the whole story, nor does Nureyev: Lifting the Curtain. But filmmakers Jacqui and David Morris at least come up with a different engaging concept, if not completely successful.
Along with mostly rare or unfamiliar dance footage of Nureyev and historical film of Russian politics and historical events, choreographer Russell Maliphant stages dance scenes that depict key moments from Nureyev’s life. Maliphant conceives dance scenarios of life, his childhood years in a dystopian Russia, and tableaux of oppressive life in Russia. Rudolf’s voice-over narration describes that moment in Paris when he defected. And there are well-selected interview clips of the incandescent star that show him at his most antagonistic. Nureyev had something on stage that radiates on screen as well. Photographically he had something that no one else had.
The essential montage of his triumphant performances with Margot Fonteyn juxtaposed with the testaments of the consequences of his actions on his family and his friends in Russia. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the heartbreaking footage of Nureyev returning to Moscow to see his ill mother.
The dance sequences that dramatize incidents and people in his life are visually bold and integrated well into the documentary film. Particularly effective in a tableau of the moment, Nureyev chose to defect to the west in 1961 while he was on tour with the USSR’s Kirov Opera Ballet Company and was summoned back to Russia by Nikita Khrushchev because the KGB was tracking his every feral move. But Maliphant’s choreography is too ponderous static at times- Rudolf’s Russian students crawling through a library with florescent lights- strikes as overwrought filler. And the late British actor Sian Phillips (Livia in I, Claudius) reading text from Nureyev’s memoirs seems odd.
But the private footage and selected interviews with Nureyev are pure gold and well selected, not repeats of what has been out there. And Nureyev’s relationship with Erik Bruhn, his lover and the artist he most admired is detailed, not just hinted at, as is so often the case in other documentaries about Nureyev.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream (2021) | John Neumeier, choreography; Myriam Hoyer, director
American choreographer John Neumeier made his famous ballet version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the late 70s on the Hamburg Ballet, with Felix Mendelssohn’s magical score with music by Gyorgy Ligeti, for the ‘Dream’ scenes.
This film is a true, rare, innovative collaboration between choreographer Neumeier and film director Myriam Hoyer, making something truly unique. After sitting out months in pandemic lockdown, Neumeier brought his Midsummer cast of 75 dancers to the shuttered Hamburg State Theater as an opportunity to make what he calls true “ballet film” of his Midsummer, not what he dubs a ‘documentary’ film of a live performance of ballet- an industry-standard approach- and the result is complete cinema magic. Filmed over three days at the Hamburg State Opera last year, the film is now available on DVD/BluRay.
The wedding scenes showcase Hamburg Ballet’s sumptuous technical artistry and virtuosic duets, trios, and ensemble esprit. The wedding couples are then transported to the Fairyland of Oberon and Titania, Puck, Bottom, and The Rustics and the mischief of Puck. Neumeier ingeniously untangles Shakespeare’s study of misdirected ardor, is a potent romantic dance comedy that keeps giving.
The principals navigate a magical forest with the furies of a corps de ballet as spectral in silvery unitards, catapulting through the space in perpetual modern dance motion. The principals are fine character dancers who know how to be expressive enough for the Bard and subtle enough for Hoyer’s cameras.