BALLET FILMS TO KNOW, AND LOVE
(an excerpt from Dance on Camera Journal)
by Robert Johnson
Ballet films are a special treat for the fans of classic dance.These opera-house lurkers thrill to see the art that they love in the new, and glamorous light of the big screen. Ballet aficionados also appreciate the mainstream recognition that a commercial film signifies, implying that the public at large can comprehend, and share their devotion. Only a few such films have appeared over the years, but almost all have become classics.
“LA MORT DU CYGNE” (“BALLERINA.”) explores the obsession to dance, and the fabled jealousy that has led rival ballerinas to put ground glass in each other’s toe shoes, and soap the stage before premieres. The heroine, Rose Souris, a young student at the Paris Opera school,dreams only of becoming a dancer, and idolizes the company’s star ballerina, whom sheadopts as her “godmother.” When the intrusion of a glamorous, Russian artiste threatens her godmother’s career, the girl takes matters into her own hands. A trap door on stage opens mysteriously beneath the foreign dancer, as she performs the ballet “La Mort du Cygne,” and she plunges downward with a shriek, knocking herself unconscious, and breaking her leg.
The guilty child flees underground, running terrified through backstage corridors littered with scenery, where gargoyles leer at her in accusation. Confined to her apartment, the recovering Russian ballerina lies stretched on an oriental divan, smoking a cigarette, andbrooding. Shadows under her eyes bespeak Slavic suffering, and the pain of exile, and thesmoke curls up toward a Byzantine icon. She dreams of dancing a la Isadora Duncan, butan infection completes the job begun by French xenophobia, and—fate worse thandeath--she can never dance again. Then the fun starts.
To the child’s surprise, her beloved godmother gives up dancing to marry a wealthyadmirer, a frivolous betrayal of Rose Souris’s artistic principles. It seems the child’sloyalties were misplaced. Then the Russian dancer begins to teach at the Paris Operaschool, and the talented Rose Souris becomes her star pupil, even as the girl struggles withthe knowledge that she caused her teacher’s injury.
When the Russian gives Souris the leading role as Queen Bee in the “Ballet of the Bees,”jealousy begins to fester among the other children, and their gossipy ballet mothers. Anenvious gnat reveals Souris’s criminality, but in the end her talent, and the pure love ofdancing that she shares with her Russian teacher save her from destruction. Dance triumphs.
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An impression of Belgian director Clara Van Gool
by Kelly Hargraves
Telling a story with images rather than words is dance’s forte, but sometimes the reality of a dance’s setting remains an abstraction on stage. Cinema is the art which allows our imaginations to travel to new locations—to view princesses in their castles; soldiers in their fields; drinkers in their pubs. When a dance film can bring together the vibrant expressiveness of movement and the immediacy of a character’s milieu the stories have a greater magnitude. Three recent films by Belgian filmmaker Clara Van Gool put dance in such dynamic locations.
With choreographer Angelika Oi, Van Gool opens up the ancient streets of Tuscany inBitings and Other Effects. The tunnels and pubs of London become new stages for the choreographies of Jamie Watton in Exit and Lloyd Newson in Enter Achilles.
These three films directed by Van Gool are rich with cinematic atmosphere that brings about lustrous interpretations of the choreography. The 35-year-old filmmaker was trained at the Dutch Film and Television Academy. While pursuing her studies, she decided to focus on making short films and films without words—so dance was a subject that attracted her. Van Gool and her choreographer friends began to experiment. She discovered working with choreographers who have a strong sense of character and story development is best for her, saying she finds more formal, abstract work harder to film. She’s made several films with Belgian choreographer Angelika Oi, including Bitings. While working on this film, she met Watton, and together the two created Exit. It was through Watton, a dancer in DV8, that Van Gool became involved in the making of the film version of DV8’s Enter Achilles.
Exit takes place in a pedestrian tunnel under the Thames River in London, which was built as a fall-out shelter during WWII. Shot in black & white, Exit drips with the humidity and dampness of such a place. Through improvisation, Watton and Van Gool created a series of contemporary characters who travel through this ominous passage—a young girl, a businessman, a mother and her son. Curious relationships develop between these bodies in a trapped space. The walls vibrate as they hurtle into each other, running through the puddles and falling on the cold paved path to briskly roll or lie down and nap.
The atmosphere in Bitings and Other Effects, shown this November at the New York Expo of Short Film and Video/Dance on Camera Night, greatly contrasts with that of Exit. Rich colors and noisy street scenes give it a romantic, old-world feeling. Elaborate costumes and tapestry frame the dancers in the large glorious rooms of an Italian mansion where the wide-open spaces heighten the sense of isolation of the dancers involved in private moments. The story is based on the Tarantella, and the effects of a tarantula’s sting. Following the initial bite, each victim is drawn to the center of the city. Van Gool’s camera follows them as they spin toward a central spot. With them, we travel through the old stone streets, over roof tops and across crowded plazas.
The film version of DV8’s stage production of Enter Achilles, takes us inside a London pub, with its gleaming wood bar, beer taps and glasses. The tensions are high as the group of virile young men flirt and threaten one another. An ingenious choreography ensues with the dancers still holding their beer glasses while jumping each other or tumbling across the barroom floor. Van Gool enhances the stunning choreography and the personality of these men by following their intense actions with a detached eye and then zooming in to show us their intentions. Through the intimacy of film, she heightens the strong psychology of DV8’s dance.
By using conventional camera work, without special effects or filmic illusion, she creates a strong sense of narrative. Happily, each film has its own distinct personality and atmosphere. Van Gool seems to have a good sense of a choreographer’s needs and hasn’t interfered with the dance itself. She attempts to keep segments whole with little editing. Instead, she uses the worlds surrounding the dance—the colors, textures and sounds—to heighten the dance’s story and enhance the energy and dynamics of its movement. Her strength is her strong craftsmanship as a filmmaker. Deft editing, strong musicality and a range of camera angles give Van Gool’s films a sense of reality that stage work often lacks.
Getting off the stage
by Daniel Conrad
Dance film is problematic because it is not an original genre but derives from the stage. Yet it is a mistake to merely record pure stage performances on film: you lose the spontaneity and immediacy of live performance without getting anything artistic in return. For drama, this was established early in film history when filmmakers were doing precisely that: filming pure theatrical performances on a stage. This quickly changed when Kuleshov, Pudovkin, and Eisenstein developed editing as a transformative mode of expression, and not mere punctuation.
Unlike theatre, dance is organized human movement. This makes the transition to film particularly difficult, since the conventional movement vocabulary of dance (particularly ballet) is designed for stage. E.g., the turnout of fifth position lets one leap sideways while facing the audience. There is little need for this in film, since the camera can move with the dancer. Stage-dance also lacks close-ups, aerial angles, and locations, because the stage only provides one angle. Film moves from angle to angle. Eisenstein might even say it moves from cut to cut, since the cuts are aesthetically active. At its best, cutting can create “surprising inevitability,” where audience expectations are paid off, handsomely, in ways that were completely unexpected but make perfect sense in retrospect.
However, if one responds by cutting stage-dance into shots and reassembling these into film, the unity of the choreography is destroyed. So the transition from stage to film has to start with filmic choreography, incorporating montage, angles, camera movement, and locations at the beginning of the process.
There are two basic solutions. The first solution is to completely re-choreograph a stage work, shot-by-shot for the camera. This can run into the same problems as adapting a novel for the screen, but it can work if the choreographer understands the medium. A beautiful example of this is Édouard Lock's film, Amelia, based on the stage work. Here the choreographer/director (Lock) makes truly filmic choreography.
This re-choreographing is partly a question of kinetics: film time runs more quickly than stage time. In film we cut out of each scene as soon as we can and into the next as late as we can. Space is different too: if you frame an abdomen in closeup, the thrust of muscles across the light requires choreographing individual muscles, ignoring the rest of the body. This change in scale changes the dynamics: a small movement, which on stage is subtle, can rush across the screen violently in a close-up. You may need to slow it down. And since the frame is horizontal, you may get better dynamics if you move horizontally rather than vertically.
The second - and I think stronger - solution is to compose a film de-novo, out of original dance phrases choreographed deliberately as fragments with sticky ends. The choreographer needs know how these fragments will be cut together; so, ideally, he/she should work closely, shot-by-shot, with the director. Each shot can then be choreographed with cutting in mind, using the frame instead of the stage. The choreography then keeps its integrity, while the film keeps its montage-logic.
Consider, for example, the unstageable, de novo opening scene of the film, West Side Story, choreographed for the camera by co-director Jerome Robbins. A spare shot of a lone young man moves to two men, then three, then larger groups, in loose counterpoint with finger pops on the upbeats. Eisenstein called this “rhythmic” cutting. Then, groups of Anglo or Puerto-Rican young men take turns confronting and chasing each other in a counterpoint he termed “dialectic” cutting. The stark graphic patterns change quickly. Instead of the 180 degree rule, there is a rupture of spatial and temporal continuity, allowing the movement to carry much more than the thin narrative. The result is a powerful visual essay on male bonding in situations where survival depends on loyalty and numbers.
Yet even working shot-by-shot, a common problem is the sense of missing some vital piece of choreography which is out of frame during the shot. In extreme cases, this destroys the choreography. This problem is common in matching-action cutting, when trying to create the illusion of continuous action; and it is at its absolute worst when the director tries to cover a pre-existing stage dance with three cameras, as if it were a hockey game.
When choreographing shot-by-shot, this problem can be fixed in several ways: by keeping all the vital action within the frame at any point in time (Bob Fosse did this routinely), by deliberately using the off-screen space to create ambiguity, by eliminating the sense of continuous action and substituting strong rhythmic bridges between shots (as in the above scene from West Side Story), and by using non-matched “collision” cuts or pseudo-matching action cuts.
“Collision” cutting, Eisenstein's invention, involves cutting unmatched shots in ways that make them collide, e.g., by changing screen-direction. Screen direction derives from the static composition of the frame (as in the Mein Liebe Herr sequence of Fosse’s Cabaret), from movement of bodies through the frame (as in the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin), or from camera movement (as in Hilary Harris’s 9 Variations on a Dance Theme). When screen direction is repeated shot to shot, this creates momentum; sharp reversals in screen direction then create “collision.”
Pseudo-matching action cuts (often used in modern narrative films, such as Ron Mann’sThe Insider, but invented by Pudovkin) leap from one shot (or scene) to another across a kinetic bridge. They work like this: cut from (e.g.) the rising action of a moving leg in one shot to a moving arm, with similar kinetics and screen-position, in the next. We can even cut to another location this way; continuity is broken, but the kinetic bridge maintains the illusion of simultaneity.
When all these methods are used together, with music, strong graphics, and colour, you get what Eisenstein called “overtonal” montage, or, toward the end of his career, “ecstasy,” referring to the sensation of being flown out of the frame. The dance sequence from the end of Ivan the Terrible - Part II and the sequence that renders the eponymous ballet from The Red Shoes are good examples.
Concerning locations, one very powerful non-stage approach is to move the filming to a location which does not easily lend itself to dance. These locations are not just backdrops but dance partners, because the physical restrictions and freedoms they give the dancers determine the repertoire of available movement, which is different from stage movement. And the solutions the dancers and choreographers invent in response give each location a unique choreography with its own specific kinetic logic. A good location is, then, an elaborate piece of gymnastic equipment which prevents you from using all those moves with French names but frees you to do other things in compensation. Examples of good location work abound, including Lloyd Newson's recent The Cost of Living (with DV8), and John Comisky's Hit and Run.
Some of the virtues of location work can be simulated in a studio. E.g., Fred Astaire’s “Stiff Upper Lip” sequence in Damsel in Distress, which takes place in a simulated amusement park, is full of gymnastic movement invented to fit the physical demands of the set. Interestingly, this is one of the few dance sequences in Astaire’s filmography which employs quick collision cuts and violations of the 180 degree rule. He normally preferred long, full-figure shots, in strict continuity; and many of his dances comprise a single long take.
Other unstageable methods involve manipulating the camera with speed changes or superimposition. The classic superimposition film is Norman McLaren's exquisite Pas de Deux, where he used the optical printer to superimpose many identical duplicates of a shot against itself. Each duplicate lags its neighbour by several frames, throwing the movement into a very tight, multi-voiced canon. Each dancer's limbs leave a trail of visual echoes, layering the movement. The dancers are back-lit against a black background, creating sharp outlines, emphasizing the pure, balanced lines of the choreography