Once again, Dance Films Association and The Film Society of Lincoln Center are ushering in a new year of dance with the annual Dance On Camera Festival. Documentaries, dance conceived especially for the camera, film adaptations of existing dances, and dance cinema classics will be on view January 6-17 at The Walter Reade Theater and other venues.
A standout of this year’s crop is Nora, from filmmakers Alla Kovgan and David Hinton. Nora Chipaumire, now a member of Urban Bush Women and a Bessie-Award winning solo performer, was born in Rhodesia. She lived through the country’s transition from British colony to independent nation of Zimbabwe, but ultimately chose to relocate in light of the culture’s restrictive expectations for women and artists. She returned from self-exile to Mozambique, near the border of her native country, to collaborate with the filmmakers in telling her story.
The 35-minute film is infused with hope, sadness, humor, and plenty of luscious color. Not quite a biopic, Nora is a poetic treatment of Chipaumire’s early life. Kovgan and Hinton use simple captions, quiet but evocative shots, Thomas Mapfumo’s polyrhythmic score, and dance to drive the narrative. When, for example, the colonial government sends for Nora’s father, we see a man in uniform goose-stepping up to a country house. Encountering the dancer representing Nora’s father, he kicks, gestures forcefully toward the ground, stamps, then slices his arm toward the street, extending his leg in the same direction. The message is clear: “YOU must GO.” The father character, with no intention of leaving, widens and lowers his stance, bending his knees deeply. Undulating his torso like a snake warning an invader, he rolls his shoulders and circles his elbows, taunting the official. Again, there is no mistaking him: “Your orders from afar have no place here; you’re going to have to fight me like a man.” A thoroughly masculine battle of wills follows. Shots of children sitting on the dusty red ground with their chickens break up the action. Perhaps they are young Nora with her brothers and sisters, but they could be any children, drawn in simply by the curious displays and dangerous ways of adults. Perhaps they are us, the viewers.
The details are sometimes ambiguous—Chipaumire herself seems to shift between her young self, her mother, and her older, wiser self looking back on her life. Still, the thrust of the action and its emotional weight remain clear. Nora is a meditation on the past. Its dream-like recollections and vivid hues produce a rich and deeply satisfying film.
Over thirty films will be featured in this year’s festival, and like Nora, many feature artists familiar from the stage. The four-film program “Jirˇí Kylián On Screen” celebrates the long and productive relationship between filmmaker Hans Hulscher and the famed choreographer with a selection of their collaborations. Richard Move choreographed and directed the ghostly Bardo, while Of the Heart showcases the subtle but profoundly affecting performances of David Dorfman and Lisa Race. Dance Like Your Old Man, from Australia’s charismatic troupe Chunky Move, is a comical and touching series of “movement portraits” that uses anecdotes and imitations to bring the dancers’ fathers to life.
When it comes to dance film as a unique genre, however, no name may be more closely associated with it than Busby Berkeley. Dance On Camera pays tribute to the master of kaleidoscopic spectacle with two of his classics: Dames and The Gang’s All Here. Credited for inventing the concept of choreography for the camera, Berkeley’s imaginative camera–work stretched the possibilities of filmed dance, paving the way for all of the innovators who have followed. For their dazzle-factor alone (plots are thin at best), his movies should not be missed on the big screen.
Two lesser known revivals will also embrace the phenomenal: the 1918 silent film The Blue Bird and 1990 Cannes favorite Ishanou (The Chosen One). Maurice Tourneur, director of The Blue Bird, pioneered new uses of technology to enhance visuals in his films, making him in some ways the cinematic equivalent of Loie Fuller. His fantastic bluebird fable is presented with its original color tints and live piano accompaniment by Ben Model. Ishanou, directed by Aribam Syam Sharma, focuses on the mystical trances of a conventional Indian woman who becomes possessed by the Meitei matriarchal cult. Her transcendental journey culminates in an impressive shamanistic dance segment.
Balancing out the intangible dreamscapes at Dance On Camera will be the ever-present documentaries. This year’s topics range from Russian ballet to a dance theater exploration of abnormal behaviors. The latter, VSPRS Show and Tell, is part film-adaptation of stage piece and part Q&A with its creators, Alain Platel and Les Ballets C de la B. Were there an award for filming live dance, director Sophie Fiennes would deserve it for her magnificent treatment of VSPRS. For more traditional fare, Bertrand Norman’s ode to the Kirov’s danseuses, Ballerina, features generous rehearsal and performance footage of stars Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, and Uliana Lopatkina. The movie is paired with Play: On the Beach With the Ballets Russes, featuring archival footage of the famed ensemble’s Sidney, Australia vacations during their 1936-1940 tours. Audience members will be invited to comment after the screening and name the dancers they can spot frolicking on the beach.
A kind of closing of the circle occurs with Antonio Gades: Ethics of Dancing. Deirdre Towers, Artistic Director of Dance Films Association, was first captivated in the 1980s by the possibilities of dance on camera evident in Carlos Saura’s smoldering flamenco trilogy starring the dancer who was largely responsible for reinvigorating flamenco and extending its global reach during the ’60s and ’70s. In Ethics of Dancing, Spanish director Juan Cano Arecha recounts Gades’s artistic career, activism, and influential appeal with extensive interviews and previously unseen footage.
Dance Films Association will present the Dance on Camera Festival January 6-17. www.dancefilms.org
ContributorMary Love Hodges