Dancing in the Movies: Thoughts on “Pina,” “Balanchine in Paris” and “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance”

It’s no secret that film, HD, and live broadcasts are becoming an increasingly visible, and vibrant, part of the dance scene worldwide. At the same time, dance on television withers away. Shows like “Dance in America” had a far wider appeal, and were shown more often, when I was a kid in the eighties than they are now. They have become an anomaly, and the general ecology of dance is the poorer for it. These prime-time programs are being increasingly replaced by one-time-only live broadcasts at movie theatres, which reach a relatively limited number of cities and towns. My parents, for example, would have to travel at least an hour to see Emerging Pictures’ March 18 screening of the Bolshoi’s “Le Corsaire” at a small repertory cinema with hard wooden seats. If this were a performance with were real, live, breathing dancers on a stage, they might well make the trip; for a movie, even a live broadcast of Alexei’s Ratmansky’s recent staging, I’d put the odds at less than 30%, at best.

And now, with the success of Wim Wenders’ “Pina,” 3D has entered into the discussion. Everyone talks about how unsatisfying it is to watch dance on film, and to a certain extent I agree. In performances recorded on sound stages, the dancers tend to look cramped, and the camera always seems to be either too close or too far. You don’t really feel the weight and amplitude of the movement on a screen; the music seems disconnected from the steps, as if it came from a recording rather than an orchestra playing in the same space (as it often does). But still, it’s better than nothing.

In fact, I’ve rather enjoyed the recent live HD screenings from various theatres around the world, most notably the Bolshoi, which is actively pushing the medium, in a kind of drive for world ballet domination (just kidding, sort of). The technology for live broadcasting has improved a great deal, and it is a thrill to peek into these vast, glittering theatres, and to form an impression of national and company styles, and of the various abilities and attributes of dancers we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. The images onscreen are crisp, the dimensions larger-than-life; the multiple cameras offer several points of view (though the editing also sometimes misses crucial passages), as if one were sitting in both the orchestra seats and the balcony at once. You get to see faces and feet, but also shifting, beautiful, geometric floor patterns. Would that New York City Ballet, which now has a sophisticated media suite thanks to the State Theatre’s David Koch-financed renovation, would devote energy and money to broadcasting its fine dancers and rich repertoire. (There are surely union issues to be resolved, but it would be worth it.) This past fall, Live at Lincoln Center broadcast “The Nutcracker” over PBS’s network of stations, but used its own movable media facilities, stationed in a trailer parked outside of the theatre. Let’s hope the company can pick up where they left off.

Of course, there have also been many dance films over the years, both fictional and documentary: “The Red Shoes,” “The Turning Point,” “The Children of Theatre Street” (a favorite), and the entire oeuvre of Fred Astaire. Two years ago, there was the ghastly and gory “Black Swan,” and in 2011, the remake of “Footlose” and Wim Wender’s “Pina,” a tribute to the late Pina Bausch, which I only got around to seeing quite recently. Wenders’ innovation is the use of 3D, which is meant to enhance our experience of observing the dance excerpts, many of which are filmed en plein air, in the streets of Wuppertal. 3D supposedly brings us into the space with the dancers, makes the visual aspect more intense, awakens the senses, and corrects some of the flatness one usually experiences when seeing dance on film. I’ll say that I’m not convinced, at least not yet. As in the past, I found the 3D “experience” disconcerting; everything looks weightless, transparent, and filmy, as if we were looking at multiple translucent images superimposed over each other rather than a single, unified picture. The likeness is blurry with the glasses, and also without the glasses. The spectacles at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center were sturdier than most, and fit well. But still, I found myself removing them repeatedly, to give my eyes a rest. Not the ideal way to lose oneself in a movie.

That said, some images had a particularly visceral effect, probably because of the technology: In one, a small theatre model suddenly came to life, and we were in the midst of a performance of “Café Müller” (a lodestone work to which the film returns again and again). In another, the film-maker’s (and thus our) eye wandered among the dancers on a dirt-strewn stage during Bausch’s angst-ridden “Rite of Spring.” We were incredibly close to the performers, closer than we would ever be in a theatre, and could see every grain of dirt as it clung to the dancers’ sweat, and the performers’ unbelievable commitment. For this is what comes through most powerfully in the film—both in the voiceover interviews and in the performances themselves: the almost religious, completely unrestrained commitment of Bausch’s company to her vision, and to her. It is a powerful testament to her almost guru-like influence that one of the dancers in the current company is the daughter of two former company-members. As she says, “I have never known a world without Pina.” These people, all of them interesting, mature, complex, and emotionally compelling, are utterly devoted to her and to her dances. There is no faking. She drew them out as people and as artists, and they have given her everything.

That said, this evocation of the dancers’ personas and devotion, does not really make the most powerful case for the choreography itself. Wenders seems intent on going beyond Bausch’s dances to reveal the emotional content, as if the choreography were not enough. Bausch of course played into this notion of the dance as conduit to feeling with such pronouncements as “I don’t care how my dancers move, but what moves them.” But it is, paradoxically, an underestimation of her own work as a choreographer/woman of the theatre and of the company-members as dancers and artists. What makes a Bausch’s work powerful is not simply individual moments of emotional exposure, but the construction of the works, the voyage, the story she tells over the course of an evening through movement and words and music and set designs, and how the dancers tell it with their bodies. What the film shows, on the other hand, are isolated, often repeated fragments from a small set of works (“Vollmond,” “Café Müller,” “Kontakthof,” “Rite of Spring”) which give a skewed impression of her dances over the years. It all looks the same: angst, angst, angst, and more angst. Coy, forced little smiles that say “yes, we know that you know that we know” and “isn’t this clever”? Women in gauzy dresses and heels, men in trousers and button-down shirts. Falling, falling, and more falling. Men and women grappling, and then letting go, and grappling some more. All of this is certainly part of the Bausch esthetic, but the experience of a full evening of Bausch is, at its best, more than a sum of these parts.

Bringing these solos and duets outside of the theatre, like the monorail in Wuppertal or a park or a traffic intersection, doesn’t help either. It underlines the essential theatricality—the underlying fakeness—of the situations they depict. What can feel hyper-real onstage, seems artificial and forced in the city, where people are living real, sometimes dramatic experiences every minute of every day. And why do the travelers in the monorail not react when they see a lithe, wild-haired dancer, garbed in evening wear, thrashing in one of Bausch’s sorrowful solos? They barely look up from their books. The artifice is striking, as it is in the voice-over testimonials by her dancers, touching as they are. They stare significantly into the camera while their voices speak of their love for her, of the ways in which she saved them, made them into who they are. They are touchingly sincere, but their quasi-religious devotion is so strong that it blocks real insight into Bausch’s work as a choreographer. How did she make the dances? What techniques did she use to draw out these visceral performances? Is it really possible that there was never any conflict in the studio? As it is, one would think these works magically made themselves. Where are the nuts and bolts?

We get more nuts and bolts in the new documentary about the Joffrey Ballet: “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” directed by Bob Hercules, who made the recent “Bill T. Jones: A Good Man” for the “American Masters” series on PBS. It was shown recently at the “Dance on Camera” festival at Lincoln Center, now in its fortieth year. It’s an illuminating film about a choreographer and company-director we don’t hear about enough. Once New York’s third company, the Joffrey decamped for Chicago (after a financial meltdown) in 1995. The tale of Robert Joffrey, this raid balletomane who brought Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Massine’s “Parade,” and Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table” back to life through sheer determination and love, is important and should be told. The footage in the film shows a company that is excitingly diverse, with a variety of body types and a warm, engaging manner, in contrast to the high stylization of New York City Ballet. What we see of Joffrey’s own ballets, like “Astarte” and “Gamelan,” shows a choreographer more interested in spectacle and engagement with his times than with real innovation or form. But the liveliness and eclecticism of the company speaks to a greater connection to the culture at large than at either ABT or NYCB. And some of the dancers, especially Gary Chryst—who played the Chinese Conjurer in “Parade” and the Profiteer in “The Green Table”– come across as electric, utterly unique performers. It is difficult to imagine them in any other company.

I had only two complaints about the film: first, a certain over-emphasis on the “American-ness” of Joffrey and the too-frequent references to Balanchine in negative terms, as “beholden” to European forms or “measured” (in contrast to Joffrey and Arpino’s dynamism) in his approach. I would argue that “measured” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Balanchine, and that his dialogue with European ballet was the very substance of his innovation. In any case, such repeated references revealed a chip on the shoulder that was diminishing to Joffrey’s legacy rather than celebratory or positive. Joffrey and Arpino’s achievements should speak for themselves. Secondly, the talking heads in the film were too few; it would have been interesting to hear a wider range of points of view. But much supporting material is available on a connected website, joffreymovie.com, which is well worth perusing.

Another film in the festival, “Balanchine in Paris,” by the French filmmaker Dominique Delouche, was an intimate portrait of particular slice of the Balanchine universe, his work with French ballerinas. Both Ghislaine Thesmar and Violette Verdy are interviewed, and also shown both in archival footage (sublime) and in recent coaching sessions with current members of the Paris Opéra Ballet. There is also footage of Alicia Markova, one of the “baby ballerinas” of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, teaching the nuances of the role of the nightingale in Balanchine’s “Chant du Rossignol” to a young dancer (Myriam Ould-Braham) at the Opéra. Markova’s understanding of the role is profound, and legible in the examples she shows to her pupil, at the venerable age of ninety. (You can see this on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16TB_PkzKC4 ). It is also evident how difficult it is to break through habits of contemporary technique: incredibly high extensions, perfect positions, a tendency to rely on muscle or esthetics rather than interpretation. In the work of all three former ballerinas, the detail, intelligence, and musicality of their imaginations shines through. Violette Verdy, in particular, is able to articulate the most subtle detail, as when she distinguishes between two swoons in a pas de deux from “Liebeslieder Waltzer”: in the first one, she tells the ballerina that the woman “fait semblant d’être soumise” (pretends to be submissive), while in the second, “je crois que c’est du vrai” (I think it’s for real). In explaining a passage from “Sonatine,” with music by Ravel, she tells the ballerina that a certain, playful moment, is “très Ginger et Fred.” It changes the quality of the movement completely, makes it more free, less effete. Then we see a short clip of Verdy in “Sonatine”—she is all charm, all music, all warmth. By contrast, the present-day ballerinas come across as exquisite, but cold. Verdy’s constant refrain is, “un peu plus riche, plus généreux.” Words to live by.

* Please feel free to leave a comment. If you would like to receive an alert when new pieces are posted on the Dance page, please drop me a line at dancinginthefastertimes@gmail.com. You can also check my updates on Twitter: @MarinaHarss

Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N ...read more


Follow Us