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39th Annual Dance on Camera Festival

by Juliet Neidish

January 28 - February 1, 2011 -- Walter Reade Theater, New York City

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association presented its 39th Annual Dance on Camera Festival (January 28- February 1, 2011) held at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. Kudos once again, for a diverse and engaging selection of new and old films on and about dance. The yearly festival celebrates the genres of film and dance, and the creative engagement between them. This year’s entries covered a wide range of dance forms, including world, historical, contemporary, theatrical and popular, as well as artistic experimentation in the field of filmmaking. The event also includes Q. and A. sessions with some of the film’s directors, choreographers and dancers. It ends with an awards presentation for the Jury Prize winning films, which were: Arman Yeritsyan’s, The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia (Best Documentary), Rannvá Károdóttir’s, Bow (Best Dancefilm), and Anne Linsel’s and Rainer Hoffman’s, Dancing Dreams (Special Jury Mention).

Two of the programs focusing on children learning to dance, are fascinating to compare for their particularly contrasting approaches. Placed together beautifully on one program was the premiere of Fabrice Herrault’s, Traces of a Life (Lignes d’une Vie), 2010, and excerpts from Nicolas Ribowski’s, Reflections of the Dance (Reflets de la Danse), 1979. Both films look at the training and legacy of the Paris Opera Ballet. Traces of a Life brings to light the life and work of Claude Bessy, from her entry into the Paris Opera in 1946 through her retirement as director of the Paris Opera Ecole de Danse in 2009. It includes glimpses of Bessy’s own training, having entered the school at the age of 10, as well as how she transmitted this tradition to her students. In Reflections of the Dance, individual dancers introduce themselves, their class rank and their teachers, as we see them at work in their various classes (ballet, variations, caractère, mime, etc.) at the Ecole. This film was made while Bessy was director and in each film we are treated to appearances of such dancers as Sylvie Guillem, Elisabeth Maurin, Laurant Hilaire and Manuel Legris, as children. Both films reveal students taking on the demands of full- time ballet training with pride and acceptance of their mission. Their radiant desire to accomplish the tasks given to them by their teachers is not in question. Through their words and deportment, they are shown sharing the honor of being part of a centuries old tradition along with their belief that with very hard work and focus, their training will give them all they need to succeed. In Traces of a Life, Bessy describes her memories as a student at the school as filled with joy, laughter and work. In reflecting the curriculum, she notes that it was “…very hard but very complete”. The uniformity of the body-types, absolute concentration and undaunted pursuit of labor in both films, cannot be overlooked. Despite the obvious drive to work every detail to its maximum, we see no anger, frustration or complaint. What we do see runs the gamut from charming to aesthetically divine.

A very different approach to teaching children was captured by Ann Linsel and Rainer Hoffman, in Dancing Dreams (Tanzträume), 2009. In the traditional canon of dance history, modern/expressive dance is described as having come into being as a reaction against the classical ballet. From it’s bare feet, personal and, or emotional statement by the dancer or choreographer, to the open range of possible choreographic subject matter, among other criteria, modern dance has historically been seen as the polar opposite of the hierarchical and formal world of ballet. The portrayal of these dichotomous worlds is maintained in the visions of Herrault and Ribowski in their respective films as compared with the vision of Linsel and Hoffman. The moving documentary Dancing Dreams, follows the 10-month trajectory of a restaging of Kontakthof, by Pina Bausch as led by Josephine Ann Endicott and Bénédicte Billiet, two long-standing members of Bausch’s company. We are shown a disparate group of 40 teenagers, many with no prior dance training, spending their Saturdays learning to perform this searing work about sexual and emotional relationships. Unlike the previously discussed ballet films, Linsel and Hoffman are interested in looking at the personal and psychological development of the young dancers as they learn to perform this piece, the success of which depends on its being meaningful to them, rather than merely being an imitation of its original steps. The Paris Opera children see their artistic flowering in their future. The Bausch children are being asked to confront an adult world through their own nascent emotions. While I believe that ballet dancers must battle with who they are and how they can personally mark the work, neither of the ballet films exposed this aspect of their process, either through the dancers or between the dancers and their teachers. The ballet master is portrayed as a conductor whose presence is felt as they speak to all, or as they move about the studio stopping to physically fix a straying limb. In fact, right from the intriguing opening sequence of Reflections of the Dance, Bessy performs her role as the all-knowing ballet mistress, regally descending a grand staircase at the Opera, while reciting by heart the seamless chain of dance steps she will be giving her students to do in this day’s technique class. And in Traces of a Life, she is shown amidst the young dancers after a rehearsal, first brandishing harsh criticisms about their lack of focus or energy, only to immediately charm them with endearments so as to send them off with her approval.

In Dancing Dreams, we often see the teachers in one-on-one support sessions searching for the words and images to get the dancer beyond the physical or psychological block, or self-doubt, which may be preventing them from achieving the demands of the role. A young girl having trouble when asked to laugh while wildly running around in a circle, declares with frustration that she can’t laugh when there is nothing funny. Endicott, telling her not to hold it back, explains that this is not a funny laugh, but rather, a serious laugh. Then she asks to take the girl’s hand so they can run together. Soon they are both engaged in the hysteria of maniacal laughter, while running free of inhibition. Pina Bausch’s attendance at numerous rehearsals over the course of the project was quite touching not only because it provided a last image of her before her unexpected death in 2009, but because she was so absorbed in the process herself. Although the piece was originally set on the professional company, the goal of this re-enactment was to tap into the strengths, vulnerabilities, and experiences of this particular group of teens such that they perform Kontakthof in a convincing and professional manner. The result was most impressive. We see in the movement and hear during interviews, the frustrations, fears and joyful surprises, as the dancers work through confronting what is demanded of them. The choice of the filmmakers to show run-throughs of choreographic sequences that crystallize poetic moments of tenderness and aggression interspersed with quiet sessions where a dancer tells a personal story of love or anguish, is actually a wonderful way of revealing what Bausch’s work is all about. And unlike in the ballet films, we are also privy to the doubts, demands and pressures on the teachers working with the group as they struggle to come up with the essential inspiration for each student, the responsibility of assigning roles, and ultimately the worry as to whether the piece, with integrity intact, would be ready in time for its premiere. In effect, the audience is invited into the inner drama and creative process of both the coaches and interpreters and how over time this type of self- discovery affects each individual as well as the group. As the film progresses, we see the inter-personal bonds which form as well as the developing inner growth, confidence and maturity of the dancers which inevitably transfers into stronger, more defined and sensitive performing.

While all three films are about the making of young dancers, aspects of the process in both the ballet world and the modern world were decidedly left out by the individual visions of each director. In the ballet films we are never even alerted to the possibility that youngsters being trained on such an intense level could be dealing with the consequential fears or struggles of their delicate age, either physically or psychologically. This seems even harder to believe, in view of the fact that they live in dormitories away from home accept on weekends. In the case of the modern dance film, no technical training is shown being given to the students, not even in the form of a warm-up. The role of the teacher and the way in which he/she imparts information is, as I pointed out, quite different in the two genres, except for the presence of Pina Bausch herself, who like Claude Bessy and her teaching faculty at the Paris Opera School, exudes a similar majesty upon entering a room. However, when Bausch arrives in rehearsal, we see that even the teachers are awe struck as they wait for her decree. As grand and hierarchical as the institution of the Paris Opera is, only Pina Bausch personally incarnates the power of a legend.

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