“I think what I got about ballet as a young person was that you are able to take something that is tremendously impossible and through your own will and passion and desire create something in yourself that is not immediately there,” says Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director, founding member, and former principal dancer of the Dance Theater of Harlem. “I think that people think about ballet as this…fairies and light and skippity-dippity but, you know, it is so incredibly difficult and it is so searing in terms of how it shapes you and your relationship to the world. That kind of challenge…I think it’s a gift to have to address it.”
Johnson is the subject of En Avant, Gabrielle Lamb’s quietly impactful short on the revitalization of the Dance Theater of Harlem after an eight-year hiatus—just one of more than 70 short and feature length films that will be screened later this week as part of the 41st Dance on Camera Festival. The selections featured in this year’s festival represent a dizzyingly broad range of dance traditions and approaches to the perennial challenge of filming dance. En Avant, like many other festival highlights, explicitly addresses the possibilities and limitations of dance as a form of expression. The same exploratory thread can be traced through other films in the festival, some of which take a more oblique look at what it means to be a dancer, and the place dance has in our world.
There is no shortage of new work at this year’s festival, but some of the most invigorating and surprising screenings are actually rare glimpses from the festival’s past, including a spotlight on pioneering dancer-turned-independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke and a somewhat puzzling, but enthralling, 1971 television documentary on legendary American musical director Busby Berkeley. Both Cineastes of Our Times: Busby Berkeley and Rome Is Burning (Portrait of Shirley Clarke) are fascinating exercises in the limitations of documentary, because both Berkeley and Clarke (who may have never been mentioned in the same sentence before) prove to be strikingly articulate but infuriatingly unreliable authorities on their own work. Cineastes, which intercuts a lengthy interview with Berkley himself with eye-popping excerpts from his films, offers great insight into his technical ingenuity (like staging a sequence inside a giant octagon of mirrors to make 6 dancers look like 16,000—without ever allowing the camera to be reflected in the shot) and tantalizing clues as to the inspiration for some of his most visionary productions. At one point, after Berkeley finishes describing the large-scale, dance-like military drills he oversaw as a field artillery lieutenant in WWI, he firmly and absolutely denies that his military background has any impact on his artistic output; the film then cuts to an uncannily militaristic dance number involving literally hundreds of dancers dressed as soldiers. After that, it’s hard not to see the underlying mechanistic order in even the most lush and spirited of Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic, borderline surreal compositions.
Among the new films featured this year, there’s nothing on quite so imposing a scale as a Busby Berkeley musical or as electric as Clarke’s work in the 60’s, but there are certainly flashes of inspiration and promises of bright things to come. Alan Brown’s Five Dances, the festival’s Opening Night Film, though deeply flawed in its script and editing, showcases some extraordinarily talented young dancers and accomplished choreography by Jonah Bokaer. Bokaer choreographed the titular five dances to silence. We see the dancers learn, rehearse and agonize over their movements in near-silence, accompanied only by the sounds of their own exertion. When we later see the dances as continuous sequences, Brown sets them to different contemporary songs, a choice that seemed somehow confining, saturating the already charged movements with fixed emotional overtones and thereby limiting their potential to resonate differently—and endlessly—for each viewer. In the same way, the story itself becomes increasingly closed off as one thread of the young protagonist’s experience—the love story—steadily takes over, culminating in an unwarrantedly sweet resolution that seems to betray the more desperate, mercurial, and tenuous image of human relationships contained in the dances themselves. Still, if it fails on some levels, it is admirable on many others, and I wish more filmmakers were still attempting this kind of old-fashioned integration of dance and conventional narrative structure.
Another feature-length film from 2012, Andrew Garrison’s Trash Dance, chronicles choreographer Allison Orr’s yearlong process of creating a large-scale performance piece with two-dozen Austin, TX sanitation workers, and their garbage trucks. Throughout, the film nearly steps over the line into ingratiating quirkiness (Everything is dance! Even collecting trash! We’re all dancing all the time!), but Orr’s sheer energy and infectious sincerity about her work win over. The “dance” that results from her months-long effort to rally these sanitation workers (whom she and the filmmakers treat like the people they are, and not just as social symbols) is a poignant reminder of the often-invisible but essential service they provide and the potential for grace even in the mundane.
Other screenings to look out for include the 50th anniversary of Francisco Rovira’s Los Tarantos, a flamenco-infused story of forbidden love à la Romeo and Juliet, two separate programs of short dance films from around the world, a 3D version of Matthew Bourne’s iconoclastic Swan Lake, and a rare showing of Frank Tuttle’s Suspense (1946), a film noir starring Olympic skater Belita, who, I’m told, jumps through real hoops of fire.
In Rome Is Burning (A Portrait of Shirley Clarke), Clarke sits in the middle of a seemingly informal gathering at a friend’s apartment (the other guests include Jacques Rivette, Jonas Mekas, and Yoko Ono- just your average casual get-together) and responds to questions about her own work. Dance never becomes the focus of the conversation (which deals mostly with her three feature-length explorations of race, class and sexuality from the 60’s—The Connection, The Cool World and Portrait of Jason) but Clarke’s lucid and occasionally brilliant musings about her intentions as an artist resonate deeply with many of the other films that will be screened in conjunction with this festival. At one point, Clarke wonders if she and other “underground” filmmakers (she was deeply uncomfortable with the term “underground”) are just talking to themselves, if their films only reach a small group of people who already agree with their ideas. When someone asks her if there’s a connection between America having a “collective nervous breakdown” and the flowering of American experimental film in the 1960s, she laughs. “Don’t you remember when Rome burnt?” she asks back. “I think Rome’s burning. And it’s always a very good time to let go. I mean, what’ve we got to lose?”
I think if Clarke, who died in 1997, could attend this year’s festival, she’d be pleasantly surprised by the kind of viewership her films have attained. And if you want to help make sure that her fears about sincere filmmakers merely talking to themselves continue to prove untrue, catch a Dance on Camera screening or two this week.