Dance on screen can too get you hooked! argues Tonya Plank

My fellow blogger Tonya Plank (a.k.a Swan Lake Samba Girl) answers my question at the end of Foot contributor Paul Parish’s intriguing post. Paul makes the argument that film’s quality of weightlessness robs dance of its magic. I had wanted to know from readers if, in their experience, screen dance always paled next to the live stuff. Was it ever just different–equal but different? Ever better?
Tonya makes a persuasive case for its value, particularly in duo forms such as social dancing, which would help explain not only the everlasting Rogers and Astaire phenomenon, but why “Dancing with the Stars” is such a hit.
Anyway, here’s Tonya:
This is a really fun discussion! I love talking about dance and film! I agree with Paul that recordings are one of the keys to the difference in popularity between dance and opera. But I disagree (not completely but for the most part) that dance recordings can never be incredibly powerful.
I first fell in love with ballet in adulthood after watching Alessandra Ferri of ABT perform “Romeo and Juliet.” And it wasn’t live! It was on DVD (“Great Pas de Deux”). I was also completely mesmerized with Darcey Bussell, who danced another MacMillan pas de deux. But I became a bigger fan of Ferri, since I was able to see her perform live on a regular basis. I wouldn’t have bought my first ABT subscription series, however, if I hadn’t watched that video a million times. So I guess Alessandra is like brandy for me!
Her magic, and the magic of ballet, was not at all lost on me because it was not live. And I’m pretty sure it’s not lost on others, either. I take ballroom dancing lessons, and I was so mesmerized with the tape, I brought it in to show my teacher in the hopes that we could actually fit some of the lifts into the lyrical rhumba showcase we were working on. Fat chance, of course.
But when we put the tape in the VCR in the lobby, right off of the main studio floor, EVERYONE started flocking around, some right in the middle of their dance lessons. Everyone was oohing and aahing and completely captivated — I could tell they were all thinking what I had when I first saw it. So the magic in that video is lost on no one!
I was so taken with this pas de deux that I felt I had to find a full-length version of “Romeo and Juliet.” I had just read the novel “Dancer” by Colum McCann, based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev, so I chose the one with him and Margot Fonteyn. I was just as mesmerized. I fell in love with Nureyev from that and he is still my favorite — though I’ve never had the chance to see him live.
Another favorite ballet video of mine is Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo in Tharp’s “Sinatra Suite.” That one I did first see live, though not by those two, but by ABT dancers last City Center season. It lost none of its magic on video. I watch it over and over again. And I brought that video as well to my ballroom studio so that my teacher and I could incorporate some of the lifts into our foxtrot routine, and same exact thing happened as with Alessandra’s “R&J.” People flocked to the lobby and were captivated. Of course, many also recognized Baryshnikov and were drawn by him.
I do think that pas de deux on video capture the magic of ballet better than ensemble work, which is perhaps the problem with ballet videos and one reason why ballroom dancing is so popular right now: it’s on TV and it’s all duet. My favorite parts of that Nureyev and Fonteyn video were definitely the pas de deux.
I recently rented ABT doing Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream.” I’ve never been so bored watching such excellent dancers in my life. To film ballet, especially a whole production like that, the filmmaker has to really think about how best to capture it — you can’t just plop a camera down at the edge of the stage and hit record. You have to think about angles and focusing in and lighting–all the elements that go into good filmmaking. A film is a different animal than a live show, the same way that a film is completely different from a play — you can’t just film a play (like that film of Mamet’s “American Buffalo” or the one of Rabe’s “Hurley Burley”) and expect it to work. To film ballet, the filmmakers need to be a little more creative.
Still, the larger problem is not that ballet isn’t captured well on film but that, unlike opera, it’s not accessible to people who aren’t already huge fans! I remember that whenever I was in Tower Records, wherever I went in the store I’d have to make my way through this huge opera section. Of course, with all the beautiful opera music pouring out of those speakers you couldn’t help but glance over at the CD covers bearing equally stunning singers. It was fascinating; I’d always have to stop and listen and browse, even though I knew nothing about opera and had not a clue what I was looking for.
Not the same with ballet. Where were the ballet videos? Hidden on some small obscure shelf way in the back corner of the video section, of course. You had to look and look hard to find them.
I came to ballet in my adult life through ballroom dancing. Ballroom, for whatever reason (always two people dancing together, more weighted, at least in the Latin version), is definitely filmable. I started ballroom dancing after a date took me swing dancing. I had fun, so I signed up for a class. But I fell head over heels in love with ballroom as an Art after a teacher in my studio showed a videotape of Latin dancers Slavik Kryklyvyy and Karina Smirnoff performing a rhumba — the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I knew then that I needed to do whatever it took to look like Karina, to dance like that, and from then on I spent every minute in the studio that I didn’t have to spend at my job.
I bought the video and watched it over and over again — and I soon realized that what I loved about it, what really took my breath away, was just how balletic it looked. (Slavik and Karina have a ballet background). My childhood passion was suddenly rekindled, and that’s what led me to the Library of the Performing Arts, to the video section, where I found Alessandra. So, basically, I fell in love with ballet completely by accident!
Sorry to go on, but my point is, many people are going to have that same path. I really think that if ballet videos were not hidden on obscure shelves in obscure areas of the library or in the back of the Opera House giftshop at the Met, if they were in areas where people who were not already converts would run smack into them and HAVE to look, as with the opera section at Tower, ballet would be competitive with opera.
I also think there’s a HUGE potential for a crossover audience from fans of “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” Those people just need somehow to get a glimpse of ballet!!!

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  1. says

    My mentor, Douglas Rosenberg ( ) has written and spoken extensively on the difference between screen dance and live dance, and the difficulties/advantages of doing both. I look at it as simply a different venue, just as you would adjust a dance presented on a thrust stage vs. a traditional proscenium.
    Any thoughts that the screen robs dance of anything would, I think, be addressed with “Still/Here” by Bill T. Jones. The medium is not a replacement for dance; it’s an extension of it.
    Apollinaire responds: Interesting. Thank you, Gray

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