29th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Paul Taylor Creative Domain (2015)

Director: Kate Geis

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As an inveterate Paul Taylor fan, the prospect of a new movie about this master dancer/choreographer filled me with joyful anticipation. Taylor is one of the last links to the legendary Martha Graham—the “naughty boy” of her company, as she said of him—and is himself one of the last grandmasters of dance. Long retired from performing himself, he is still choreographing new works at age 85. That fact in itself is interesting, as late works of masters in the arts can often have a gravity that comes from their accumulation of experience. Yet, I wondered what director Kate Geis would reveal that hadn’t already been shown in what I thought was the definitive documentary about Taylor, Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker (1998). Riffing on the title of Taylor’s autobiography Private Domain, Geis’s conceit is that she will reveal the secret of Taylor’s choreographic genius. This she does not do—nor do I think anyone can—but she nonetheless offers accumulative detail in showing how a dance is made, eschewing the more all-encompassing look at Taylor and his dance company in Dancemaker in a way that resonates more deeply for its concentrated focus.

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The film moves from the first day of working on a new dance to its premiere in 2010. Taylor explains to his company that he wants to examine a love triangle in a Rashomon-like fashion. It’s doubtful that the dancers have seen or know about Rashomon (1950) and its shifting points of view, but no matter. Taylor gets his point across and casting begins for what will become “Three Dubious Memories,” his 133rd modern dance. All of the dancers say they want to be a part of any new dance, hoping to be part of writing the history of the company and having the pleasure of working with Taylor. Amy Young, too, is anxious to be cast, and when she is given the principal female role of the Girl in Red, she is nervous about being physically and artistically able to give Taylor what he wants. He casts Sean Patrick Mahoney as the Boy in Blue, who disrupts the initial romance of the Girl in Red and the Boy in Green. He gives the latter role to Robert Kleinendorst, perhaps sensing that Kleinendorst and Young had started to see each other (they are now married).

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Taylor has written out specific beats and dance patterns for the music he will use, but prefers to work without music as he evolves the piece. He manipulates the bodies of his dancers, offers them shapes to imitate, and verbally instructs them where to move. His plan is to allow the three principal dancers to move freely as full-bodied beings, but restrict the eight-member chorus commenting on the story to flat, angular movements reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics to suggest two dimensions. His ideas sometimes outstrip the dancers’ ability to carry out the movements he wants, and we thus get to witness not only the strength, but also the fragility of a dancer’s body and the need for the artist to modify his vision to accommodate the “clay” with which he is working.

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Little in Taylor’s method has changed over the years, certainly not from what was shown in Dancemaker. Former dancer turned rehearsal director Bettie de Jong is still his rehearsal director. He still uses reel-to-reel tape to play the music for his dances. He still injects sexual ambiguity into his romantic pieces, as when the principal male dancers seem to reject the Girl in Red for their own camaraderie and possible romance, drawing a swift and powerful reaction from her worthy of the feminist model he had in Graham.

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When Taylor finally plays the music for the company—unusually, Taylor chose to use an unsolicited composition from Czech-born composer Peter Elyakim Taussig—the dancers’ interpretations of the moves they have learned gain force and fluidity. Taussig is delighted by what Taylor has created when he sees the dance for the first time in the company’s studio space. Then we’re on to Santo Loquasto’s costume designs and fittings, tech rehearsals with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and, finally, the premiere performance.

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What I like about Reis’ approach is that we get a chance to watch the dance as it is built, step by step, with little in the way of navel-gazing by the dancers or Taylor. The dancers say they really don’t know much about Taylor, and he deflects any such probing by saying that what he is can be seen in his dances. It is a little frustrating not to see “Three Dubious Memories” danced straight through in its entirety, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter that much. We’ve seen all parts of the dance at various stages and have an insight into what it takes to make and perform a dance that simply watching from the audience can never convey. Dancers are supposed to make it look easy, so the more grueling and painful aspects of the life are never fully understood, though this film is blessedly free of the litany of injuries and parade of deformed feet that characterized Dancemaker.

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One the other hand, claims I’ve read that this film is the first to pull back the veil on Taylor and his process are nothing but marketing fiction. Nonetheless, even though it’s not the exclusive look the copywriters claim it is, it is a look, and a very good and well-shot one. If you’re a fan of dance, and especially if you’re a fan of Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor Creative Domain is well worth your time.


6th 02 - 2015 | no comment »

Pina (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Wim Wenders

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This year, the Berlinale is paying tribute to one of Germany’s most creative native sons, Wim Wenders. Showing next week at the Berlinale Palast theatre is Everything Will Be Fine, Wenders’ brand-new feature film shot in 3D, and the “Homage” section of the festival will screen 10 of his works, including the film under consideration here, Pina. This documentary about one of the giants of German modern dance, Pina Bausch, was the first film Wenders shot in 3D. Clearly, he must have been intrigued by the form during his first outing and wondered how it could be applied to a fictional narrative. Like many of our finest directors, including Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, Wenders has found a new toy to play with and has had to learn all over again how to shoot a movie. Pina is an interesting, often beautiful film that shows the learning curve for 3D cinematography is a sometimes steep and bumpy one.

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Pina was a project nursed over the 20-year friendship of Wenders and Bausch, but it stayed as little more than an idea until 3D cinematography made its resurgence. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wenders said, “I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of film-making, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance’s realm and language.” Although dance has been filmed since the very beginnings of motion pictures, Wenders’ appreciation of the importance of space as well as movement to dance is an interesting and vital addition to the representation of dance on film. The possibilities of allowing viewers to “enter” the spaces between dancers must have had great appeal for Bausch, for whom some level of audience involvement would be a natural fit with her convention-defying choreography and collaborative work method.

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Sadly, Bausch died suddenly before principal photography began, so we will never know what influence the 3D effects would have had on her personal language of movement or what contributions she could have made to the visual approach and results Wenders achieved. But we do have her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who were filmed in live performances before an audience and in sequences set up by Wenders in a variety of environments, including a warehouse, an overhead tram car, a glass house set in the midst of trees, a swimming pool deck, and a busy street, among other locations.

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The place where Wenders achieves the potential of 3D is in the film’s opening. A topless woman wearing an accordion briefly sings about the seasons of the year, initiating a kind of snake dance in which the company, dressed in suits and evening wear, move onto the stage in a line repeating small hand gestures for spring, summer, fall, and winter as they cross the stage and double back behind a flowing scrim. The 3D effect actually seems to move us into the line and, at one point, elicits an urge to sweep the scrim out of our way. It’s an amazingly effective opening, giving the audience a stake in the film as a participant, not just the usual passive viewer of dance.

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Wenders follows up by showing in slow time lapse workers dumping large containers of earth onto the stage and smoothing it into a giant square that covers the entire performance space. We are then treated to perhaps Bausch’s most famous piece of choreography, her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring. This is the only piece we see in its entirety, and indeed, it would be hard to cut away from this primal, frightening work whose power would pop off the screen with or without Wenders’ camera tricks. As the film moves on, however, Wenders is content to present fragments of dances, interspersing them with short vignettes of the dancers talking briefly about Bausch or sometimes saying nothing at all. He does not see fit to identify the dancers in any way, though he does relate them to the dances they perform. Bausch painted with a wide brush, and her company is polyglot and international, young and not so young, tall and tiny—the very opposite of the regimented sizes and shapes of traditional ballet and even more diverse than can be found in many modern dance companies.

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As the film moves on, Wenders’ use of 3D is less obvious, and the film becomes less interactive as a result. He uses his power as director to become something of a choreographer, particularly in a performance of “Kontakthof,” a ballroom-dance-inflected piece concentrating on the awkwardness of finding intimacy transformed into an examination of aging by having three different casts—adolescents, adults, and mature adults—melting successively into each other, thus merging the three age-specific versions of this dance Bausch staged over the years.

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The piece that gets the majority of Wenders’ attention is “Café Müller,” which introduced the director to Bausch’s work in 1985. It is also the piece where we get to see and hear Pina dance and talk about the language of dance. It’s poignant to hear her remark that the deep feeling she had for this piece vanished when she tried to dance it with her eyes open—once she closed them again, it all fell back into place emotionally. We see archival footage of Pina in the piece as well as a contemporary mounting with another dancer in Pina’s role. The dance certainly is remarkable, with two women moving through the space of a café peppered with round tables and chairs with their eyes closed, a male dancer rushing to remove the objects before the dancers run into them. Pina’s part was more minimal in this regard—she largely remained against a wall, moving slowly against the vertical plane, occasionally breaking away from it to shuffle behind a plexiglass wall and bash into it from time to time. This dance carries on Bausch’s habit of ritualized movement and repetition, seeming to turn people into machines that become habituated to their environment and frightened of separation.

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Wenders recognizes this approach and chooses sites that emphasize a harrowing, hemmed-in quality to match the movements. One dance that particularly struck me begins in a factory of some kind that has metal cars moving on overhead rails along its periphery. A male dancer is swinging his female partner on a concrete floor boxed by I-beams, making this open, expansive movement appear dangerous. As they move out of the frame, a male dancer is filmed moving on the floor; he seems to be paralyzed from the waist down and must use his hands to manipulate his legs in fast, repetitive motions that create a box of his body. The effect is of a man turned into a machine, and the marriage of his frantically busy movements and his mechanical, industrial surroundings is a fortuitous one.

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Other sites are less felicitous. Wenders films a younger dancer new to the company who barely had a chance to work with Pina before her death. The dancer talks about how Pina would give her little instruction—in fact, all the dancers remark on her reluctance to give them more than a line or two of direction—and how she realized that she would have to pull herself up by her own hair. Wenders films her dancing on the deck of a pool with a few swimmers in the water, a rather clichéd way to suggest her fear of drowning in her new environment. Interestingly, the choreography includes her pulling her hair up above her head, but whether Wenders suggested the gesture or the dancer improvised it is anyone’s guess.

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This poolside dance was revealing of another aspect of Bausch and her company. A young woman with very little experience of or indoctrination into the cult of Pina showed more spirit and feeling in her dancing than the more established members, while still executing moves that were in keeping with Pina’s choreographic ethos. Pina’s dances are often described as cerebral, even cold, while her subject matter is about relationships, community, the fraught landscape of love and its discords. In “Café Müller,” she has a woman desperately hug a man, only to have another man break her grip and place her on her lover’s outstretched arms; when the lover’s arms grow tired and he drops her, she immediately goes back into her desperate clutch. The disruptive dancer again breaks her grip and places her on her lover’s arms, and the scene repeats over and over, moving faster and faster, until the couple repeat the sequence without prompting, a piece of conditioning that overtakes their genuine feelings. It was only when I saw Pina dance in the film’s archival footage that I understood that her choreography, for all its supposed collaborativeness, maps her feelings—every gesture she made was electric and alive. No matter how well-trained and devoted her dancers were to her, they could not duplicate her inner fire, and she could not articulate it to them in words. That Wenders’ 3D effects tended to wane the longer the film progressed may have had something to do with the difficulty even he was having finding the heart of Bausch’s art.

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Wenders ends the film at a deep quarry, where a young male dancer runs into the frame from below the lip of the quarry. He is a whirling dervish of movement, thrilling and frightening to watch as he edges dangerously close to the lip. Suddenly he breaks and climbs a steep slope. The snake dance of elegantly dressed dancers miming “spring, summer, fall, winter” moves along the top of the slope. A long shot of them reveals them to be the dancers of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a too-much imitated shot that, nonetheless, offers an appropriate finale in tribute to its departed central subject.


6th 05 - 2012 | 3 comments »

Exposed (1983)

Director/Screenwriter: James Toback

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The past few days have been something of a cinephile’s paradise—at least for this cinephile. Australian film scholar and critic Adrian Martin made a very rare appearance in town to give a lecture at the University of Chicago entitled “Cinema Invents Ways of Dancing,” which this dance/dance-on-film enthusiast couldn’t wait to attend. The next night, Martin joined a panel composed of Girish Shambu, Elena Gorfinkel, and moderator Nick Davis at Northwestern University on film criticism and its relationship to academia. Both talks were interesting and illuminated the choice of film Martin made to follow the panel: James Toback’s little-seen, but often derided thriller Exposed. Martin is a big fan of Toback’s work, and puts him in his own pantheon of neglected American directors who deserve praise and study. He commented before the film that Toback projected his usual protagonist—a man attracted to adventure and danger, only to find himself in over his head—onto his female protagonist in Exposed, Elizabeth Carlson, played by Nastassja Kinski at the height of her fame.

Exposed is an engaging film that moves at a pace made brisk by the absence of the extraneous. Somewhat ironically, Exposed, a title that superficially refers to the fact that Elizabeth gains fame as a fashion model and cover girl, seems to me to be a snapshot of the American psyche circa 1983. It mixes overnight fame and fortune with very little sacrifice and no college degree; offers supermodel worship, including a cameo appearance by the self-proclaimed first supermodel, Janice Dickinson; and capitalizes on ripped-from-the-headlines topicality by involving Elizabeth in hunting European terrorists. Perhaps Exposed was too calculated for its own good because it was a big flop, but aside from some laughable performances, particularly by the director himself and trick-casted Rudolf Nureyev, the film deserves more attention and respect that it has gotten to date.

Elizabeth is the first-generation American daughter of Swedish parents (Ron Randell and Bibi Andersson) who is dying to get away from their Wisconsin dairy farm and become a classical pianist. She quits college, and with it, her affair with her controlling English professor (Toback), and heads to New York City, where she is almost immediately mugged. Economic necessity requires her to do what so many aspiring artists do in New York—she accepts a job as a waitress. Fortunately, she waits on Greg Miller (Ian McShane), a photographer out with a bevy of models (all of them real NYC models), who recognizes her potential. She soon becomes a famous model, and at an exhibition featuring Miller’s photos of her, Elizabeth meets a mystery man (Nureyev) who pursues her in a provocative way, which includes breaking into her apartment. The man, Daniel Jelline, is a classical violinist, and after dazzling her with his virtuosic playing, seduces her. When she awakens in the morning, Jelline is gone, replaced by a plane ticket to Paris. She flies there to meet him, only to learn he is actually a child of Holocaust victims who is seeking revenge against a terrorist named Rivas (Harvey Keitel), whose gang planted a bomb in a Paris cafe that killed Jelline’s mother. She joins his search, and the film revs to its inevitably violent conclusion.

Some of elements of the story traffic in cliché, except that behind some of these clichés is fact, lending more weight to the story. Toback’s English professor is, stereotypically, having an affair with the prettiest student in his classes. But Toback really did teach English at the university level, and his coded lecture, a hidden and irritating conceit that he is screwing Elizabeth, seems like something that would really happen. Elizabeth’s rise from farmer’s daughter to high-fashion model also seems clichéd, except that one of the models cast in the restaurant and photo shoot scenes is, much to my surprise, my college friend P. J. Shaffer, who was a cornfed daughter from rural Illinois. Falling quickly and passionately in love with a seemingly bad boy is another cliché, but the love takes on depth when his musical artistry, tragic past, and dedication to a mission answer an unfocused longing in Elizabeth. A final shoot-out of outlaws in an isolated street in Paris is the inevitable quote from films of the French New Wave, but the lingering realism of the violence makes the scene a sober meditation on vengeance and political terror.

Adrian Martin’s talk the night before the panel and screening helped me understand why he might be particularly attracted to Exposed. Elizabeth is a modern woman in touch with her sexuality, and expresses it in dance before she meets Jelline. Martin talked about the everyday movements and settings that many choreographers and filmmakers turn into dance, and in this scene, Toback creates a believable occurrence that illustrates Elizabeth’s life force. She is working out on an exercycle and talking to her mother on the phone. After she hangs up, she moves to her stereo and puts on a recording of Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song.” The lyrics, talking about how a girl can tell if a boy loves her by his kiss, inspire Elizabeth to dance with an imaginary man in the form of a chair, her exercycle, a wooden support in her apartment—a personal imitation of the self-conscious prop dancing Fred Astaire made iconic in film. Her dancing generates the heat she longs for with a man, and leaves her spent and a bit frustrated on the floor.

The sexuality in the film works on several levels. Elizabeth locks eyes with a blonde woman on a photo shoot in Paris whom she later encounters on her return trip to the city. This woman, Bridget (Marion Varella), is a member of Rivas’ gang and the woman who planted the bomb in the opening scene, and it is her lesbian attraction to Elizabeth that causes her unwise decision to take the model to the gang’s hideout. In addition, Kinski and Nureyev were both sex symbols, the latter particularly for gay men. So Toback ensures that there’s something titillating for everybody. Unfortunately, both foils for Kinski are terrible actors. In particular, Nureyev’s enunciation of English is atrocious, his lovemaking with a woman awkward, and his acting wooden. Because of his central role in Exposed, Nureyev seriously hampers the film with a performance that led to derisive laughter in our audience. If Toback had cast someone with the chops of Keitel and McShane in the role of Jelline, this film might have had a very different reception.

Kinski offers a decent performance, but as a former model and then-current sex symbol, she becomes more than a competent performer. She is the screen for our cultural projections, a symbol of restless youth, liberated women, easy money. Toback subverts all she represents in the final scene—surrounded by death, he desaturates the color until all is grey, like the photo of Jelline’s dead mother in a newspaper and the victims of the Holocaust Jelline shows Elizabeth. The hollowness of the terrorist aims, Jelline’s vengeance, and Elizabeth’s attraction to danger come through clearly on her ashen, sad face, and the film whimpers to a close.


11th 07 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Dance with Me (1998)

Director: Randa Haines

By Marilyn Ferdinand

For decades, song and dance were well-respected staples in Hollywood films, making legends of Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and many, many other talented performers. As the supply of seasoned musical talent dried up with the extinction of vaudeville and hard times fell on both Hollywood and a nation rapidly losing its innocence to televised war and assassination, the movie musical all but disappeared.

While white America was busy debriding and closing its wounds, other American subcultures continued to crave music and dance on screen. Perhaps it was MTV’s music videos, which debuted in the 1980s, that caught the attention of some Hollywood producers, but dance-filled films aimed primarily at the youth market slowly started trickling out of the dream factory again. White faces could still be found in films like Footloose and Dirty Dancing, but the breakout hit and trendsetter of the decade, Flashdance, starred Jennifer Beals, a mixed-race actress. From then on, dance films remained largely an entertainment of minority audiences.

In 1998, the perhaps inevitable pairing of a pop singer with an actress/dancer, providing a blend that film producers could understand and bank on, took place. Puerto Rican singing idol Chayanne was teamed with Vanessa Williams, a beauty queen who was proving to be an effective screen presence, for Dance with Me, an entry in the growing ballroom dance subgenre. The film effectively mixes family drama and love story with street dancing and formal dancing—a combination that made Flashdance such a potent force for audiences. Yet, it slyly lampoons the Reader’s Digest approach to dance (“8 to 80, anyone can do it, makes you feel good”) by drawing a porous, but definite line between amateur and professional dancers that proves to be a credit to both.

The film opens onto the lively streets of Santiago de Cuba, where the sway of music and dance seems to fill even the most mundane of chores. We follow Rafael Infante (Chayanne) to a cemetery, where he lays flowers on the grave of his mother. At home, he regards a letter addressed to a John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson) in Houston, Texas. Soon, he receives an answer to his letter telling him there is a job for him—a favor to Rafael’s mother, with whom Burnett had an affair on a cruise ship. Rafael has not yet told Burnett that he is the father Rafael never knew.

At the Houston airport, he is met by Ruby (Williams), who takes him to the dance studio Burnett runs. Ruby dashes off to teach a class, and Rafael is left to regard the students and employees of the lived-in studio. Burnett arrives, orients him quickly to his duties as the studio handyman and takes him to his home; Rafael will live in a walk-up apartment adjacent to the main house. Burnett declines Rafael’s request to go out for drinks, as he dashes back to the studio. Thus abandoned with his dashed hopes that he and his father would find immediate rapport, we experience along with Rafael the uncertainty of a new immigrant.

There’s no question that there will be a serious romance between the alliteratively named Ruby and Rafael—they simply look too good together—but there is Ruby’s defensiveness after a disastrous relationship with her former dance partner (professional Latin-division dancer Rick Valenzuela) and Rafael’s offensive clumsiness to contend with first. When Rafael watches Ruby and her new partner Michael (Harry Groener—who knew The Mayor from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer could dance so well?!) practicing, he wonders how they can dance without music. Ruby, practicing her footwork dancing around a pillar while Michael takes a break, says, “It’s choreography.” He presses his point that it should be the music that tells a dancer what to do, insulting Ruby’s professionalism. She returns the insult when she accedes to Rafael’s request that she teach him how to dance at a local salsa club, and she catches him dancing quite well with another woman while she was in the restroom. “Why didn’t you tell me you could dance?” she asks him accusingly. “I’m Cuban. Of course I can dance,” he replies, as though she has rocks in her head, “just not the way you do.”

Haines offers these exchanges to set up themes about the dance world that complement the story and make the connection between a love of dance and a love of life. In the amateur world, the joy of the music and communality, such as when Ruby and Rafael slow dance at an engagement party they happen into and a second, more successful attempt at clubbing, help Ruby put her life into perspective. At the same time, the pro-am competition for which studio regular Patricia (Jane Krakowski) is preparing with John as her partner shows that even an amateur can aspire to be the best she can be as an expression of the love she feels for dance. John, who has grown tired and lost his passion for dance, also has a solitary personal life. It is only when he realizes belatedly what he might be missing after an angry confrontation with Rafael in which his secret is revealed that his interest in dance renews.

Randa Haines, director of the highly honored drama Children of a Lesser God, might have been expected to emphasize the film’s dramatic story. But she shows her versatility and intelligence by using the clichés in which the script trafficks as punctuation for the dance sequences, where the emotional lives of characters play out with much more nuance and effect. The stunning artistry of Krakowski took me by surprise. Obviously a trained dancer, she creates a passionate pas de deux with Rafael at the championship that subtly tells half the story of the Rafael/Ruby romance.

When Ruby dances with her former partner in the other half of the story, she spots Rafael in the audience; overjoyed that she hasn’t lost him after all, she responds to the movements he makes in the crowd and imagines that she is in his arms instead. The unlocking of her passion proves to be the key to winning the championship and, of course, a happy, harmonious life with him working for a revitalized Burnett at his dance studio.

Haines’ camerawork is superlative in the dance sequences, which form the majority of the film. She choreographs her shots precisely at the salsa club, seemingly as abandoned as the dancers, yet ending up exactly where she needs to be when Ruby and Rafael, who have been changing partners throughout the sequence, end up in each other’s arms. She does not adhere to the full-body shooting favored by dancers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but there were few times when I felt cheated, so deftly does she move between the story on the dancers’ faces and the movements of their bodies. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Joan Plowright’s dancing in the senior division competition—as studio regular Bea Johnson, she more than showed her chops during her dance lessons—but it was gratifying to see her in the spotlight anyway in an endearing duet with Chayanne. It was also gratifying to see Haines pay tribute to Gene Kelly’s classic “Singing in the Rain” dance when Rafael, caught in a field of lawn sprinklers, cavorts and splashes his feet in a puddle. The closing credits are a short story in themselves, using this normally useless time to show the richness of Ruby’s, Rafael’s, and John’s lives following their final reconciliation at the competition. The film’s editors Lisa Fruchtman and William S. Scharf deserve maximum kudos for their efforts.

Since Dance with Me came out, one film tried to fuse the white and minority audiences—Save the Last Dance (2001). An excellent film that transports a white ballet dancer into the black South Side of Chicago, where she learns to meld tradition with new styles, this could have paved a new road for dance/music films. Sadly, it was not to be. Dance with Me is a wonderful film, but it remains in the dance film ghetto, and its director and performers far from creating this kind of magic again.


11th 05 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Thank you, Blogosphere

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We at Ferdy on Films, etc., are awed by the volcanic explosion of creative dance movie posts over this past week. Rod and I never dreamed this would be as successful as it has been. We want to thank all the wonderful film and dance bloggers who joined in the fun:

Jonathan Lapper, Cinema Styles
Joe Valdez, This Distracted Globe
Glenn Kenny, Premiere.com
Rick Olson, Coosa Creek Mambo
J.D., Radiator Heaven
Bob Turnbull, Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind
Bob Westal, Foward to Yesterday
Peter Nellhaus, Coffee Coffee and More Coffee
Pat, Doodad Kind of Town
Danielle Gordon, Lady Wakasa’s Journal
Arbogast, Arbogast on Film
Pat Piper, Lazy Eye Theatre
Jim, The Moviezzz Blog
SciFi Drive
David Cairns, Shadowplay
Richard Harland Smith, MovieMorlocks.com
Wayne Howard, Reel Whore
Henrik Eriksson, Swing, Jazz, and Blues – Dance to the Music
Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest
Anna Brady Nurse, Move the Frame
Kimberly Lindbergs, Cinebeats
Editor A, Cahiers2Cinema
Bob Glickstein, Gee Bobg
Whitney Borup, Dear Jesus
Jason Bellamy, The Cooler
bbrown, Screenshottery
Noel Vera, Critic After Dark
Gautam Valluri, Broken Projector
Carl Nelson, Carl’s Jazz Dance Blog
Campaspe, Self-Styled Siren

Rod is cooling his jets at home, while I’m heating mine on the edge of the Kilauea Crater on the Big Island of Hawaii. Ferdy on Films, etc. is going to take a break for vacation. We’ll be back soon with all new reviews and reports from the world of offroad cinema. Mahalo! l

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4th 05 - 2008 | 18 comments »

Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon 2008

It’s Here!

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Grab a partner because it’s time to hit the dance floor as bloggers everywhere get ready to dazzle you with their style, grace, and amazing feats of blogging about dance movies. Whether dance is used as a pure study in form, an element that is integral to the plot, or pure wow-’em entertainment, participants of Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon will give you unique ways to understand and enjoy these wonderful moments in film.

And here we go!

Sunday, May 4

Jonathan Lapper at Cinema Styles goes Beyond Routine: Choreography and Dance and ponders the greatest dance number on film (or do you disagree?). Check out his great moving banner.

Joe Valdez at This Distracted Globe discusses a great teen dance film Save the Last Dance.

Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films, etc. talks about Dancing in Tight Spaces using Royal Wedding, Tap, and Dance With Me as examples.

Glenn Kenny from Premiere.com offers some great screen caps from four films by Jean-Luc Godard.

Rick Olson at Coosa Creek Mambo contemplates in an older post the dance of the solar system in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

J.D. does a kick-ass job on Rock n’ Roll High School over at Radiator Heaven.

Bob Turnbull gives us so many transcendent dance moments over at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, all I can say is “Go! See!”

Bob Westal at Forward to Yesterday offers a whole slew of posts he did for his own Fossethon late in 2007. I’m linking to Part I of a three-part post. I suggest you start here and then wend your way through the entire collection.

Danielle Gordon grapples with the definition of a dance movie at Lady Wakasa’s Journal and promises a week of posts that try to answer that question in the broadest way possible. Must reading, if you ask me!

Monday, May 5

Peter Nellhaus from Coffee Coffee and More Coffee offers some sexy screen caps and commentary on the Coyote Ugly of Mexico, Mesa que Mas Aplauda.

Pat at Doodad Kind of Town offers a thoughtful review of Robert Altman’s The Company.

Mark Osborn at Tractor Facts gives us rundown of David Bowie’s dance with the Muppets (!) in Labyrinth.

Arbogast at Arbogast on Film tells a chilling tale of a dance on command in Curse of the Werewolf. Yikes!

Installment 2 from Danielle Gordon at Lady Wakasa’s Journal is a tour de force on dance in silent movies. Thanks for mentioning our mutual love of silents, Lady!

Pat Piper has discovered a new film genre: The Angry Young Dancer. He’s got the lowdown on the archetypal film of this genre, Footloose, over at Lazy Eye Theater.

Jim over at The Moviezzz Blog takes the hazardous step of choosing the best dance scenes of all time. Wanna argue about it? Visit his site.

Tuesday, May 6

SciFi Drive has chosen some of the best dance routines in scifi movies. Time Warp, anyone?

David Cairns at Shadowplay took the weirdest Busby Berkeley film I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot!), The Gang’s All Here (review on this blog somewhere), and gave a brilliant exposition on the disembodied heads in polka dots that end the film. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this “dancing heads” number.

Ah, Astaire! Adele, that is. Jonathan Lapper at Cinema Styles produces a photo of the more famous Astaire and his earliest dance partner—his sister—and tells us a little about where she got off to while Fred was becoming a star.

Richard Harland Smith over at TCM’s MovieMorlocks.com has contributed one of the best ballroom scenes in filmdom from my favorite vampire movie of all time The Fearless Vampire Killers (or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck). Thank you, thank you, Richard! We’re not worthy.

Wednesday, May 7

Wayne Howard at Reel Whore shows us more Angry Young Dancer and a whole lot of amazing moves in what he declares a masterpiece of impromptu dance as a source of comedy, Hot Rod. I’m not about to argue.

Peter Nellhaus of Coffee Coffee and More Coffee gives us a second post in his area of great interest—Asian films. The Japanese film Carmen comes Home explores cultural shifts in part by asking whether stripping is an art form. Great reading!

Rick Olson at Coosa Creek Mambo is back with a new post on the wonderfully archetypal dances in the films of Fellini. Sometimes you do have to be Fellini to figure it out!

Henrik Eriksson of Swing, Jazz, and Blues – Dance to the Music provides a treasure trove of films and performances that link music and dance. Have fun rifling through his wonderful closet of posts.

Kirby Holt at Movie Dearest shows the history of men dancing with men in the movies is extremely long, varied, and well worth your attention.

Anna Brady Nurse of Move the Frame, our first dance blogger(!), schools us on the Madison through the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Hal Hartley, and John Waters. This you gotta see!

Bob Turnbull of Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind checks in again with an older post, Blood Wedding, by my favorite filmmaker currently working in dance films, Carlos Saura. Bravo!

In case you had any doubt, Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats reminds you that zombies don’t like bad dancing in her post about Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City.

Back with Installments 3 and 4 of her series, Danielle Gordon of Lady Wakasa’s Journal discusses independent film and her other passion after silent films—Asian films—with a few thoughts on dance in Hong Kong cinema.

Editor A, Cahiers2Cinéma, “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, Ha ha ha ha ha.” It’s all here.

Thursday, May 8

This is a reminder that I am going to be spending most of the day on an airplane. I will check in as soon as I can in Honolulu and post all the new entries. Please be patient and please tell me about your new entries in the comments section of this post. Comcast is acting very weird lately.

Roderick Heath from right here on Ferdy on Films, etc. gives us the dance that keeps on giving with his take on John Travolta’s famous disco dance in Saturday Night Fever and its numerous offshoots.

Haven’t had your daily fix of psychokiller dancing. Hop over to Gee Bobg where Bob Glickstein has a bunch of “killer” video clips to share.

Whitney Borup at Dear Jesus brings us the good news about Newsies.

Friday, May 9

Sorry to be gone so long, but the famous wifi hotel wasn’t after all. I’m working from the business center right now and hope to find an internet cafe somewhere today. Waikiki is kind of shock right now–so built up and my favorite hotel to stay here demolished to make way for some kind of gated village for vacationers. Ah me, nothing stays the same… But back to the blogathon.

Thought there was nothing to like about Heaven’s Gate? Jason Bellamy of The Cooler begs to differ.

After her great post on The Company Pat from Doodad Kind of Town returns with another on East Side Story. Yes, East Side.

Installment 5 of Danielle Gordon’s fascinating series on Lady Wakasa’s Journal is Hurray for Bollywood! I know there are a lot of Bollywood fans out there, so go read what Danielle’s got to say.

Let’s help bbrown launch his new site, Screenshottery by viewing his sexy series of screenshots from Mean Streets.

I’m absolutely thrilled Peter Nellhaus of Coffee Coffee and More Coffee is back with his third and final entry into the blogathon—an appreciation of Nancy Kwan in Flower Drum Song. I may be in the minority in loving this film, but Peter tells you why it’s worth your time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

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Happy 109th Birthday, Fred Astaire

Here we are at the last day of the blogathon. We’ve got a last few posts from the diehard participants, but I want to thank all my participants and readers for making this such a fun party.

Does Your Heart Beat Faster?. It will after your read Critic After Dark Noel Vera’s excellent review of “the subtlest, wittiest, and arguably most demented” film from his home country, The Philippines. Thanks, Noel!

A fever dream double feature from David Cairns at Shadowplay: The Great Gabbo and The Great Flamarian. Erich von Stroheim dances!

My good buddy Gautam Valluri at Broken Projector breaks from his usual fare to join the blogathon with a tribute to the birthday boy, Fred Astaire, in Three Little Words. Your timing is impeccable, Gautam.

Danielle Gordon from Lady Wakasa’s Journal finishes up her outstanding series with a very informative post on Fred Astaire. Thanks, Danielle, for your wonderful insights all week.

Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats checks in with one more wonderful entry, Ted V. Mikels’ B-movie bonanza Girl in Gold Boots.

Carl Nelson at Carl’s Jazz Dance Blog, our lindy hop specialist, checks in with great words and clips from Stormy Weather.

Campaspe gracefully explores Dance as Soliloquy over at The Self-Styled Siren.

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4th 05 - 2008 | no comment »

The Dance That’s Stayin’ Alive!

Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon 2008

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By Roderick Heath

I realised, after devoting not too much time thinking about it, that three of my favorite dance scenes are all variations on the same moment, springing from Saturday Night Fever. It’s a film remembered as the flashpoint of Disco culture, a polyester-swathed celebration of those days of gritty glamour, chest hair, nose powder, and mirror balls. The soundtrack sold by the billion, and John Travolta was catapulted to the kind of stardom that consumes itself. But SNF is far more than just the ’70s equivalent of one of those lame ’50s rock films like Rock, Rock, Rock or Let’s Twist Again, where the latest big thing is trotted out in a dimly plotted vehicle. Saturday Night Fever was a ballsy, intelligent movie with telling things to say about (then) modern urban youth culture, a bridging point between the American New Wave cinema and the oncoming world of blockbusters.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Director: John Badham
Choreographer: Lester Wilson

Cunning producer Robert Stigwood found an even more cunning director in John Badham. What Badham did with the ailing dance movie formula was to take it back to its roots—a close ancestor is Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street (1933)—and contrast the high of cutting loose on the dance floor with the downer of surviving everyday life. Our hero is Tony Manero (John Travolta), a 19-year-old working-class Italian kid living at home with his nagging, neurotic parents in Brooklyn, working in a paint store and going nowhere fast. Like so many people of his age and class, he only becomes what he thinks he truly is at night, when he transforms into an Achilles of the dance floor, desired, admired, and revered by all. He embodies a contemporary male fantasy, delighted in his own body and prowess as a dancer. He’s a love totem for females. So much pussy comes his way he’s become contemptuous of it.

His first journey to the 2001: Odyssey club begins momentously as he enters with his friends to the grandiose strains of “A Fifth of Beethoven.” He cuts through this crowd like a messiah of cool. But Badham delays our true appreciation of Tony’s prowess. Tony dances here with two women who worship him, but he hardly burns up the floor. The DJ compounds his irritation by putting on a salsa-flavoured piece, the music of the despised Puerto Ricans; “You can’t dance to this shit!” But this is where he first glimpses Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), the girl who temporarily dominates the floor in the same way he’s used to. Right from the start, Stephanie challenges Tony’s prejudices and self-love. And he digs it. But still he does not cut loose. Instead he is absorbed into the crowd line-dancing to “Night Fever.” The link between the song, the film’s title, and Tony becoming absorbed, reinforces his place in a community, a lifestyle. His tale as just another in this semi-naked city.

Badham, having cultivated a Scorsese-esque verisimilitude in the rest of the film, presents the inside of the club as a candy-coloured dreamland filled with hot ladies, slick movers, strippers and hip tunes. The camera drinks up the flashy, sexy show on the floor; one shot of a woman’s swiveling dress and legs lasts about 20 seconds. Tony’s great dance number arrives halfway through the film. Tony is on a high, expecting Stephanie to come and in the company of his brother Frank (Martin Shakar), whose own decision to leave the priesthood mirrors Tony’s increasing discomfort. His frustrations, his inability to get in the groove, have then been mirrored by the audience’s own desire to see him let rip. With irritation and hope in his soul, and weighed down by a sluggish partner Connie (Fran Drescher, who would later gain horrible revenge for her slight in this scene), Tony hears the opening chords of “You Should Be Dancing” and declares, ‘Forget this!’ He sets about brushing away all the other dancers, and cuts loose.

Badham shoots the sequence with élan, but also visual economy. As Tony begins, he struts up the centre of the stage, pretending to roll up his sleeves and tighten his belt like a pugilist or gunfighter awaiting action. Badham cuts in for a low shot of Travolta’s beaming, aquiline face as he swings his arm about in a lordly survey that both embraces the audience in his coolness and makes them bow down to it. Travolta sleekly stakes out each of the four corners of the stage, his flared pants and platform shoes acting like knifes that slice the floor into rippling, patterned pieces. Each move gains in a technical and athletic virtuosity, building to herky-jerky robotic flourishes.

The centrepiece of the act sees him stake out the front of the stage, rapidly stabbing the air with alternating index fingers, slapping the soles of his shoes, before cocking his left leg out, leaning away to the right, thrusting his pelvis as his arm jabs the air like a musketeer’s sword before tossing in another play-act vignette of wiping off his own seat. Badham cuts in to a low-angle, front-on shot that emphasises the architecture of the move. It’s the most iconic image of the film, a perfect fusion of muscle, music and fashion. Tony retreats down stage, spins, throws himself into a splay-legged crouch, slides across the four quarters of the stage, and regains his feet in a kung-fu forward flip. He has established his indifference to gravity. He folds his arms, and begins dropping to his knees and leaping up in the Cossack style, crowned in the moment when he throws himself into the sky, legs wide out to his hands.

This is the dancer as action hero, as urban cultural warrior. The sequence is a celebration of his masculinity, a new brand of masculinity that likes to display itself in a fashion previously reserved for women. Tony caresses his ass and humps both air and stage. There is a recognisable progress from the prancing precision of Fred Astaire to the rough-and-tumble of Gene Kelly to this martial dance-artist, but the celebration of male sexual prowess is new. It’s fitting for the pansexual philosophy of the era, Disco having been friendly both to multiculturalism and to gay life—one of the many reasons it was as loathed as loved. The film has bent over backwards to reassure us of Tony’s heterosexuality, however, and his postures have placed him in context with a long tradition of screen heroes. He’s a riposte to Taxi Driver’s thesis that Travis Bickle was the NYC heir to Western heroes; no, Tony is, at least for these minutes on the dance floor.

Airplane! (1980)
Directors: David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams
Choreographer: Tom Mahoney

Burlesques on Saturday Night Fever were endless. None matched that found in Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams [“ZAZ”], 1980), a send-up of cheesy disaster movies that is actually a scurrilous satire on the cultural mores of the ’70s. The scene in the Mogumbo Bar presents the film’s approach in miniature, beginning as a caricature of the seedy movie dens that screen heroes like Humphrey Bogart would hang about in. A fist fight breaks out between a pair in uniform—not sailors or soldiers, as per usual, but rather two girl scouts—who beat the crap out of each other. One is sent sliding down the bar and collides with the jukebox, which immediately starts emitting a speeded-up version of “Stayin’ Alive.” The grizzled bar whores head for the floor. When one is stabbed in the back, his partner Elaine (Julie Hagerty) can’t tell the difference between his dying contortions and the epileptic chic of Disco moves. Ted (Robert Hays), entranced by the sight of Elaine, heads onto the floor and confronts her. Both are dazzled. Ted strips off his Navy tunic to reveal a white vest and black shirt, and tosses his jacket with élan into the crowd before striking the finger-in-the-air pose—only to have the jacket thrown back in his face.

Unfazed, Ted and Elaine begin to dance, Ted throwing Elaine into the air and waiting many seconds for her to land again in his arms. He allows her to swing him by the ankles, until she accidentally sends him flying. Horror! Ted cartwheels through the air and falls to ground behind a crowd with a huge crash. But our hero is unharmed; he bursts out from the crowd and again strikes the air-stabbing pose, this time with such undeniable cool that his finger stabs in the air sound like bullets. Abrahams and the Zuckers prove how hip they are to the stylisation of SNF, as Ted’s heroic strut plays on Tony’s posing is an extension of the classic American movie hero. As well as being one of the funniest scenes ever committed to celluloid, it’s a true bookend to its model. In their later concerts, The Bee Gees took to showing both scenes on a big screen whenever they played “Stayin’ Alive.”

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino

For Travolta, Saturday Night Fever eventually proved to be a millstone. A decade and a half later, he was a living joke (and it wouldn’t be the last time), having made enough money from the Look Who’s Talking series to retire, but having flushed the last of his cred down the toilet. Then, Quentin Tarantino cast him in his hipster-noir epic Pulp Fiction and had him dance.

The sequence alludes to Travolta’s early role, but it also, in its deliberately stilted sinuosity, refers to the dance of Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part (1964). The moves of Travolta and partner Uma Thurman are drawn from oddball models—Thurman’s from the Duchess of The Aristocats (1970) and Travolta tossing in Adam West’s Batusi, all set to Chuck Berry’s unique Cajun-rockabilly tune “You Never Can Tell.” All this on top of the pair that we are supposed to be watching—a beatnik hitman and a coke-snorting ex-actress gangster’s moll falling in lust—builds into a scene that’s giddily hilarious, pointedly sexy, and subtly weird. It, in itself, became a vastly more ironic but equally pertinent pop culture icon to match the SNF scene, and remade Travolta’s career by both subverting and paying tribute to his time as the king of the dance floor.

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3rd 05 - 2008 | 9 comments »

Dancing in Tight Spaces

Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

To most people, dancing mainly involves dancers making pleasing or dramatic shapes oftentimes while telling a story. Big moves, the flowy-showy costumes, and tricks are amply rewarded by audiences with appreciation and applause.

But crucially, dance is an expression of movement through space. In the case of clapping or tap dancing, sound may come into the picture, but the critical action is movement. How a dancer relates to the space through which he or she moves can communicate as much as a dramatic, emotional speech. In film, this space can be as large as all outdoors, depending on camera range and angle, or as small as a closet. I’m going to examine three films in which dancing happens in tight or crowded spaces and discuss why I think these scenes were choreographed the way they were, how they help move the themes of the film forward, and communicate more than the emotional experience of watching pleasing shapes.

Royal Wedding (1951)
Director: Stanley Donen
Choreographers: Nick Castle/Fred Astaire

Set in 1947, Royal Wedding has a brother and sister team (Astaire and Jane Powell) crossing the Atlantic to open their recently closed Broadway show in London the year of the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II to Philip. Naturally, both siblings find their true loves in the process. In one of the most famous scenes in all the movies, Fred finds himself thinking about Anne (Sarah Churchill), a dancer he met during auditions for the London show. He goes into her father’s tavern, seemingly casually looking for her, but finding only her dad to talk to. He goes back to his hotel, finds Anne’s picture in an advertising sandwich board, slips the picture out of its holder, and takes it up to his room. Regarding the picture, he sings “You’re Everything to Me” and then literally dances around the room to the orchestral arrangement of the song. Below is a clip of the “dancing on the ceiling” number:

Now, people have been wondering for ages, “How did he do that?” Just to clear the mystery up so we can go on to other things, the room rotated and the various parts of the film were cut to make a seamless dance. But why did Castle and Astaire choose to create a dance in a rotating box? I can’t say for sure, but certainly these two former vaudevillians were interested in wowing the audiences with their ingenuity, and the use of such props as the ceiling light—an Astaire trademark—would be easy to incorporate. But I think there’s more to it than that. Astaire’s character is in love but is stuck unless and until Anne throws over her boyfriend. He’s literally boxed in with his feelings. At the same time, the song lets us know that Anne is Astaire’s whole world. At that moment, the room is his whole world, and he shows through his movements that he will do his best to defy its boundaries, defy gravity itself (lovers are often said to be “walking on air”) to give free rein to his feelings. The giddy, exuberant dance comes pretty close to accomplishing those goals and serves the story as well as Astaire’s showmanship.

Tap (1989)
Director: Nick Castle
Choreographers: Henry de Tang/Gregory Hines

Here we have another Nick Castle film choreographed by another great vaudevillian, Henry de Tang, for a boatful of vaudeville stars, including Harold Nicholas, Sandman Sims, and Sammy Davis, Jr. This film is also noted for introducing one of the major dance lights of today, Savion Glover, then just a boy. In between is the great Gregory Hines, and the tap number I’m going to discuss is his credited “improvography.” Hines plays a dancer who, tired of the financial hardships of his profession, turns to crime. The film opens in the prison block where Hines’ character is incarcerated. We move to his cell. The lighting is dark and the cell narrow. He pulls a thick board out and places it at the bars of his cell on the side opposite his bed. He starts to tap; his cellblock mates start to yell at the noise he’s making:

Watch him smash his cell wall loudly and repeatedly with his foot. “Let me out of here. Let me out of here!” If you saw Robert De Niro smash his fists into a wall in Raging Bull, you’ll recognize the frustration. But then, Hines starts to warm to his dancing itself. He seems to get into a frenzy of creativity, with small, precise, rapid taps showing his excitement. He has freed himself for a short while with his art, oblivious to the shouts around him. When we see his passion, we know that he will be drawn back into dancing—something he fights against when he is released—by the picture’s end. This scene shorthands the themes of this movie perfectly.

Dance With Me (1998)
Director: Randa Haines
Choreographer: Liz Curtis

A film that mixes the director of Children of a Lesser God, a dance instructor with no previous film credits as choreographer, a semi-dancer in Vanessa Williams, and a singing idol in Chayanne sounds like a risky proposition. Can the singer act? Can the semi-dancer really pull off championship ballroom sequences? Can a dramatic director shoot dance? Somehow it all comes together in this story of a jaded competitive ballroom dancer who finds new inspiration and love with a Cuban immigrant.

In the scene I’m going to discuss, Williams has accepted Chayanne’s invitation to go out dancing. She meets him in front of a salsa club and they go in. Lights and dancers are swirling in front of them in a hot red glow. When they first hit the dance floor, the couple is jostled by the closely packed crowd. However, as all the dancers warm up, a communal dance takes place.

In several shots, we can see that the dance floor is actually quite spacious. But it holds a lot of couples who would rather dance together than separately, making a virtue of close quarters. As a competitive dancer, Williams has always looked at other dancers as “the enemy.” We see her face in medium-close shots as we watch the reserve we’ve seen in previous scenes dissolve in joy. The dancers pass partners off to each other, cooperate in forming lines and circles, gain energy from each other’s efforts, and work together with the salsa band to create an atmosphere that reflects Cuban life and culture. Williams is welcomed in as though she were a native, as though she belongs in a place where the celebration of life comes first. The camera seems to swirl with the dancers, though Haines really uses judicious angles and edits with precise pacing to make us feel as though we’re dancing with this wonderful crowd as well. I don’t think I’ve seen any other film that so completely conveys the pleasure, accessibility, and beauty of picking up one’s feet and dancing. This film, to my mind, is the best of the ballroom genre, and is all the more special for placing minority dancers in what has traditionally been a white dance style in movies.

I hope I’ve shown how the creative use of space is a formidable aid in the dancer/choreographer’s toolbox. Large spaces can be closed, and close spaces can be expanded. Every dancer is taught to be aware of their surroundings. In movies, that awareness can also tell a story.

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2nd 05 - 2008 | 1 comment »

Reminder: Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon

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Time to Warm Up Your Blogging Muscles

Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon

Opens Soon!

Starting this Sunday, the first Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon grand battements its way into the blogosphere. We’re very excited to be hosting this waltz through dance films, and we’ve already heard from some participants that their entries are waiting in the wings. I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with, and I hope you feel the same. It’s not too late to participate. All the information you need can be found here.

I’m going to find this blogathon particularly exciting and challenging because from Thursday through Saturday—Fred Astaire’s birthday—I’ll be blogging near the sands of Waikiki. Yes, I couldn’t arrange airline tickets for May 11, as I planned, so I’ll be coming to you from the lobby of the Ohana East Hotel in Honolulu. In consideration of the great time difference between certain regions of the mainland and Hawaii (not to mention my desire to spend time with the hubby on our first real vacation in three years), I’ll be getting up as early as I can to make the rounds of the participating blogs and link their entries here. So mahalo in advance for your patience.

BIFFlogobrownsmall.jpgOne benefit of my trip to Hawaii is that I will be blogging from the Third Annual Big Island Film Festival (assuming I can find wifi somewhere on the Kohala Coast). The hubby and I have our film choices made and will be attending special events where I hope to interview some film luminaries who will be attending. So stay tuned for that the weekend after the blogathon. l

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2nd 04 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Stomp the Yard (2007)

Director: Sylvain White

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

From the early 60s to about the mid 80s, you weren’t likely to see much dancing on the big screen. Yes, there were Broadway-style musicals, particularly in the 60s, and a few glances toward disco with films like Saturday Night Fever (1977). In general, however, the Free Love generation was amazingly uptight when it came to dancing. Disco died among white Americans, but continued on in the African-American community, changing and growing entirely new forms under the radar of mainstream culture.

The 80s marked the first breakthrough into the mainstream of this vital new dance scene. Beat Street (1984) brought breakdancing memorably to the movies. There seemed to be some money in programming dance films, so a smattering of them for the teen market began appearing. There was definitely something unusual about the way these movies split along racial/dance style lines. Breakdancing, hip hop, crumping, salsa, and other grassroots forms were the province of African Americans and Latinos. White dancers stuck with ballroom and ballet. The first real crossover film, Save the Last Dance (2001), has nondancer Julia Stiles play a thoroughly white-bread ballet dancer who learns hip hop when she ends up going to school on the black South Side of Chicago. This film was very good and a surprise hit in the normally moribund movie month of January. Its honesty about the cultural divide in the way Stiles’ character had to negotiate a world both foreign and hostile to her was a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, its bold experiment has not yet been repeated. White America is in desperate need of a dance revival, and I hope that a steady stream of African-American dance films will help lead the way.

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Stomp the Yard tells a familiar, even hackneyed, story. DJ (Columbus Short) is the head of a dance crew that battles with other crews in the rough dance clubs of Los Angeles. DJ, a cocky hothead loaded with talent, decides to diss another crew on its home turf. His younger brother Duron (Chris Brown) begs him to back off. DJ says, “I really want this.” Duron reminds him that they are a team and should act as a team, but he eventually agrees to the dance challenge. Payback’s a bitch when DJ and his crew are jumped by the other crew after the dance battle, and Duron is shot and killed. DJ serves a stretch in jail for assault and then is packed off to Atlanta to work as a gardener for his Uncle Nate (Harry J. Lennix) and attend Truth University on a scholarship. DJ’s the quintessential street kid thrown in among the elite of black society to learn lessons in humility and teamwork, and as he says late in the film, “become a better person” through education, brotherhood, and the love of a good woman. In turn, he teaches the straightlaced, sometimes ruthless preppies at Truth University how to get down and be real. We even get a competition at the end that rivals that of any sports movie out there.

So why would I recommend such a formulaic film? Two reasons: the performance by Columbus Short, which is superb and which forms the strong backbone that lifts this film beyond the commonplace, and the dancing and choreography that point to the future of dance in America and around the world.

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DJ moves into a dorm and tries to understand his new and alien world. He walks around campus and sees a dance crew performing the traditional step dancing (“stomping the yard”) on a riser. It is composed of the members and pledges of Theta Nu Theta, a fraternity that has lost the national step competition seven years in a row to the powerhouse Mu Gamma Xis. DJ watches this stiff form of dancing as though he were a traveler from the future looking at the yokels of the past. Indeed, he is—his street dancing is exactly what stepping needs to remain relevant to the younger generation of college students. DJ commits a faux pas when he breaks through the line of the Mu Gammas, who are getting ready to perform, to pursue a girl he was instantly smitten with the first time he saw her—April Palmer (Meaghan Good), daughter of the university provost and girlfriend of Mu Gamma leader Grant (Darren Dewitt Henson).

Freshman hazing doesn’t sit too well with DJ, who fights back. Being told by Grant to leave April alone doesn’t sit too well, either. DJ finds a way to get to know her by signing up to be tutored by her. One night, DJ’s roommates take him to a local club, where he shows off his dance skills. Grant tries to recruit him to pledge Mu Gamma Xi. DJ knows it’s just because of his dance skills. “Stepping’s for pussies,” he spits into Grant’s face. “What do you do?” says an angry Grant. “I battle,” is the answer. His intensity is so real, we can feel it.

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Theta Nu also tries to recruit DJ. Sylvester (Brian J. White) admits he hopes to knock Mu Gamma off their pedestal in the step competition, but he also offers DJ the opportunity to join a brotherhood he can count on the rest of his life. Having just lost a brother, DJ takes this message to heart. He pledges the Theta Nus and begins to challenge their traditional step style. He also wins over April by showing her that he really cares about her as a person, not just as an accessory to the good life, as Grant does. He plays love scenes with just the right touch, intimate without being too forward. One scene really worked for me: DJ becomes a little goofy and tongue-tied when he’s out with April at lunch, a lunch he won by answering her question from his tutoring lesson correctly. He flirts, but she makes a comment about still being with Grant. He says, “You’re fine, but you ain’t all that.” April is warmed by DJ’s bad attempt to cover up his feelings for her. It’s very sweet and real.

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There are obstacles and dirty tricks thrown in DJ’s way, including suspension for lying about having a criminal record on his scholarship application. The film climaxes at the national step competition, at which the rival fraternities perform stunning routines layered with street moves and special effects. I guess I don’t have to tell you who wins, but the final dance-off really shows how far DJ has come in dealing with his life and responsibility for Duron’s death.

The video below gives a chronological rundown of the dancing in this movie. The flash, rhythm, and unison are obvious. What may not be so obvious is the precise technique of many of the dancers, especially Short, who has a long resume as a professional dancer. So good is the choreography of the club sequences that they seem effortlessly spontaneous and surprising. Short contributed most of the choreography, and he really knows how to work with space and play off other dancers to create the challenges that are so much like jazz musicians who are cutting heads (competitively improvising). On the vast stage of the step competition, he gets in Grant’s face, closing the space and upping the ante for the competitors and the audience.

If you’re not a dance fan per se, there’s probably nothing compelling for you in Stomp the Yard. But if you want to see what will be bubbling up in our culture in the immediate few years and watch a dancer who can act and dance with fire, this is one dance movie you’ve got to see.

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15th 03 - 2008 | 34 comments »

Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon

Ferdy on Films, etc. Announces

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I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows and you come home. –Rufus T. Firefly, Duck Soup

No matter what you think of dance as a form of entertainment, it’s clear that this unique performance art has been a huge part of cinema pretty much right from the start. The Edison Company’s The Serpentine Dance (1894), for example, depicted an undergarment-revealing dance that actually got the film banned, 40 years before the infamous Hays Production Code for moral decency in movies was put in place.

Dance in motion pictures comes in a wide variety of forms: the kaleidoscopic production numbers of Busby Berkeley; the elegant ballets of real-life prima ballerina Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes; and the sophisticated pas des deux between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gower and Marge Champion, and Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Newer films, such as the very adult The Tango Lesson (1997), solid teen flicks like Save the Last Dance (2001) and Honey (2003), and Broadway-style films like Chicago (2002) and The Producers (2005), are keeping dance alive and well on the big screen. Even arthouse film lovers can find dance that inspires and provokes, such as the opening retelling in dance of the Creation in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

Whether dance is used as a pure study in form (Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Cinema), an element that is integral to the plot (the tortuous ballroom dance sequence in Jezebel), or pure wow-’em entertainment (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), its contributions to film deserve your consideration.

Ferdy on Films, etc. is proud to host the Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon, May 4 through May 10. The last day of the blogathon just happens to be the birthday of one of the greatest dancers ever to grace the silver screen—Fred Astaire. Contributions on that date that discuss Astaire are particularly welcome. Please RSVP in the comments section of this page or to ferdyonfilms@comcast.net. Below are ads you can use to publicize the event. Resize as needed. Hope to see you on the dance floor!

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8th 08 - 2006 | no comment »

Billy Elliott (2000)

Director: Stephen Daldry

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Children have been important to adult films since their earliest days. Slapstick silent comedies often had some destructive brat in a bonnet driving some overwhelmed adult around the bend. In other films, such as Chaplin’s The Kid, the child (Jackie Coogan) was on equal footing and an integral part of a sentimental story of familial love. Even in these films, however, the child was a bit idealized, a condition that would persist through the syrupy Shirley Temple movies that sold innocence to a jaded world and the safe S-E-X Andy Hardy films that would make Mickey Rooney seem eternally adolescent for the rest of his career.

It would take post-WWII social breakdown to gradually make children in adult movies into the too-clever-by-half youngsters, snarky teens, and violent thugs we fear and loathe today. To find anything approaching an “average” child, you have to see films whose primary target audience is children/teens or the increasingly rare family film. Billy Elliott has the most appealing, real kids I have seen on the screen in a very long time, which I suspect accounts for the legions of adults who have been completely charmed by it. Jamie Bell, who plays the title role, is absolutely extraordinary, the kind of kid any parent would like to claim as his or her own. Yet, this really isn’t a stellar family film in the strictest sense because the adults in it are one-dimensional and motivated by plot rather than character. This film speaks best to kids.

Billy is the 11-year-old son of a widowed coal miner (Gary Lewis) in Northern England. He shares a room with his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) and tends to his somewhat feeble-minded, live-in grandmother (Jean Heywood) whose mantra is that she could have been a professional dancer. Perhaps it’s her influence that causes Billy to join the ballet class taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) he has been eyeing from across the gymnasium where he is supposed to be learning to box. The teacher sees something in Billy and singles him out for special attention. Slowly, Billy gets the hang of it, feeling triumphant when he finally manages to nail a pirouette.

Billy has been lying to his father about what he has been doing when he’s supposed to be boxing. His father hits the roof, but not because dancing is for “poofs.” He’s angry that Billy has been wasting money, for the miners are on strike and every penny counts. He forces Billy to give up the class, but Mrs. Wilkinson agrees to continue his training for free and prepares him for a regional audition for the Royal Ballet School.

The day of the audition, Tony is arrested for taking part in a violent demonstration against the mining company and scabs who have been crossing the picket line. Billy must miss the audition to go with his father to bail Tony out of jail. That is when Billy’s teacher and father go head-to-head over the boy’s future.

A major turning point occurs when Billy and his best friend Michael, who Billy has caught cross-dressing, go into the gymnasium so that Billy can show Michael what dancing is about. Because he knows Michael likes dresses, he fetches one of the girls’ tutus and then puts Michael through some barre positions. Naturally, Billy’s father walks in on them. Defiantly, Billy does the dance he had prepared for the audition, ending with him staring down his father. Mr. Elliott storms out of the gym but heads straight for Mrs. Wilkinson’s house and finds out how he can help Billy get into the Royal Ballet School. We know then that we are headed for a happy ending, though the film manages to make the journey from the coal pit to the orchestra pit an interesting one.

The interactions between Billy and Michael are first-rate. Billy slowly comes to realize that Michael is a “poof” who fancies him, but he isn’t bothered by it once the surprise fades. Both boys are frank in their affection for each other, however different in character, and convey a naturalness in everything, from Michael putting lipstick on Billy to Billy giving Michael a kiss on the cheek as he sets off for London. Debbie (Nicola Blackwell), Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter, fancies Billy and urges him into the class in an offhand manner that, nonetheless, shows a shrewdness about how to get him to drop his inhibitions. She is effectively seductive when she and Billy have a pillow fight in her room, tempting Billy to kiss her even though he doesn’t fancy her. It’s a terrific scene of budding sexuality that is played absolutely right. Another scene in which Billy imagines his dead mother is still alive is deeply moving.

The adults fare much less well. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn’t even get a first name, and she’s saddled with the cliched life of a frustrated housewife pouring her emotion into Billy’s dancing. Mr. Elliott’s support for Billy’s dancing ambitions, while possibly true for his character, came out of left field because his part was so underwritten. When he runs through the hilly, cobblestoned streets to the union hall to shout that Billy has been accepted to the school, it just looks like an obligatory scene rather than a real moment. However, the film succeeds in contrasting the bleak future Billy would have in the mines with the promise of a fulfilling life in the arts and the big city. I thought it was a nice touch that when Billy asks his father what London is like as they ride the train to the audition, Mr. Elliott declares that he’s never been there, or anywhere else.

Stephen Daldry’s capital in Hollywood rose in a backhanded way when he was credited with directing Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose to an Oscar in The Hours. A closer look at that flawed film would show that he brought the best out in all the members of that stellar cast, and he does the same with Billy Elliott. I lay the blame for this not-quite-right film at the feet of its writer, Lee Hall, who appears to have done mainly children’s films before this one. This would explain his affinity for his young characters and clumsiness with his adults. I wonder if he also was responsible for Billy becoming a righteous tap dancer when he was, after all, learning ballet, but perhaps that was the producer playing to Jamie Bell’s strength. As a former dancer, I was bothered by this inconsistency, but as a viewer, I loved every step in Mr. Bell’s gifted feet. He is the heart of the movie and gives it everything he’s got. You might just fall in love with him—and with Billy Elliott. l

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19th 01 - 2006 | no comment »

Carmen (1983)

Director: Carlos Saura

By Marilyn Ferdinand

French author Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella about the free-spirited Spanish Romy (Gypsy) Carmen has inspired more than 50 film adaptations and, famously, one stupendous opera by Georges Bizet that itself has been filmed several times. In this installment of his filmic odyssey through the world of Latin dance (including Blood Wedding and El amor brujo, which form a trilogy with Carmen; Tango; and Flamenco), Spanish director Carlos Saura has collaborated with celebrated dancer Antonio Gades to reinterpret this tragedy in Spanish terms, in a sense, “returning” Carmen to her country from the fictional Spain of Mérimée’s imagination. It is Saura’s genius to effect this transformation by having the lives of his characters imitate the art of Mérimée and Bizet, thus wholly internalizing the legend of Carmen and giving it new, Spanish, life. (The fact that this transformation occurs in a fictional film further complicates the history of Carmen, making this film more a borrowing of intellectual property than a repatriation of a cultural artifact.) Whatever its geopolitical implications may be, as a film, Carmen plays like a palindrome, as Gades, who plays himself, choreographs a flamenco “Carmen” with an unknown dancer named Carmen (Laura del Sol) assuming the title role.

The film opens with Gades auditioning female dancers. His consummately talented assistant Cristina Hoyos, playing herself, leads the hopefuls through some combinations. Gades singles two or three out to perform alone. Commiserating with famed guitarist Paco de Lucía (who composed all the dance music for the film) after the audition, he says, “Some of them are good. But none of them are Carmen.” Then the opening credits roll to the strains of Bizet’s opera.

We move on to a huge dance studio, where dancers are lounging, talking, and trying out steps on each other. The camera pans across de Lucía and other musicians, who are jamming, and settles on Gades, who takes a reel of tape from a messenger, threads it into his tape recorder, and listens. “Pres des remparts de Seville,” Bizet’s waltz to be sung by Carmen, flutters on the air and then grows louder and louder as Saura zooms in on Gades’ face, watching him absorb the musical strains and try to visualize them in dance. This device of amplifying Bizet’s score will be used again to telegraph Gades’ state of mind and creative process.

The musicians begin to riff on the aria and come up with a boleras treatment. De Lucía plays it for Antonio, easily convincing him that this version is better suited for dance. Inspired by the new Spanish rendition of the French approximation of Spanish music, Antonio is immediately inspired to begin choreographing his “Carmen.”

Gades’ biggest problem is trying to find his Carmen. He goes to a dance school to look at some of the students. He sits in, watching the raw dancers work their castanets and growing restless until one student, Carmen, runs in late to class. He later visits her at the nightclub where she dances for tourists and asks her to audition at his studio. During the audition, Gades guides her through a pas de deux he has choreographed for Carmen’s seduction of Don José. A series of spins brings them close, face to face. Carmen gazes at him with a sweet insolence; he returns a gaze of helpless lust and fascination. Needless to say, she gets the job.

Cristina is disappointed that she did not get the role as she works with the amateurish Carmen, blasting her off the dance floor with her skill. Antonio tries to calm her but further injures her by saying he needs someone younger to play Carmen. Slowly, Carmen finds herself in the role and in her own skills. When we see del Sol show what she actually can do, it’s stunning!

The stage is set for the first dance, in the Seville cigarette factory where the fictional Carmen works. A brilliant score that makes full use of the almost animalistic chanting of the flamenco singers works to bring this confrontational dance of insult and murder to its fever pitch, when Carmen picks a knife off a table and slashes at the throat of her coworker, played by Cristina. This and all the dances are the best I’ve ever seen committed to film, disproving Fred Astaire’s theory that dance must be shot full body. In the hands of a master director and cinematographer, tight angles, stark lighting, and circular motion communicate perfectly the enmity of the two women—but which women? The dancers or the characters they are playing?

The blurring of fiction and reality starts with this astonishing dance and continues to play out as Antonio becomes embroiled in an affair with the untrustworthy Carmen in a scenario that parallels Mérimée’s tale. Dances appear that have little to do with the story and everything to do with Gades’ jealousy at being confronted by the reality of Carmen’s marriage, which she swears she intends to end. A card game involving some of the dancers, Gades, and Carmen’s husband devolves into a shouting match and then a furious dance duel between Gades and Carmen’s husband—that is, a dancer made up to look exactly like her husband. Saura and Gades, who wrote the script of the film together, delight in putting viewers in among the funhouse mirrors and challenging them to distinguish the real from the reflection.

In the end, Antonio follows Carmen off the dance floor, which she has left in disgust as he, as Don José, has been challenge-dancing the bullfighter for whom the character of Carmen has rejected him. She repulses him, appearing to be speaking to him as Antonio, not Don José. She disappears into a doorway, and we see only Gades pleading and arguing into this hidden space. Gades removes a switchblade from his back pocket and stabs into the space. Carmen crumbles back into the frame. The camera pans back across the dance studio, where the rest of the cast is milling about, indifferent to what has happened in the corner of the room. Was this a “real” event or an invention of Gades the choreographer? In fact, it is neither. It is Saura completing his version of Carmen with a question mark.


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