Dance onscreen that trumps dance onstage

Way back in May, we here at Foot wandered from the question of why opera is winning the popularity contest over ballet to why music is more likely than dance to survive recording.
I asked readers if they’d seen any dance recordings that they felt survived the translation intact–or even improved on the live event.
For a whole two months, the only people to take a stab at the question were Griffin, Gray, and Tonya (aka Swan Lake Samba Girl). Then PBS’s “Live from Lincoln Center” telecast of Mark Morris’s “Mozart Dances” raised the topic again (or I did, anyway, with this feature on the broadcast of “Mozart Dances” and how to get live TV to do justice to live dance), and Counter Critic sent these insights my way:

A couple of years ago, I saw the film version of La La La Human Steps’ “Amelia,” shot in a square room where the wood floor swoops up skater park style to become the walls. There were intense close-ups on eyes and faces (you could see cheeks flinch with the body’s greater movement) and fun camera tricks that would turn a dancer suddenly on her side as she slid down one of the walls. The soft wood and clear lighting were elegant and minimal. I loved it.

So when the piece came to BAM, I was eager to see it, not realizing there might be aesthetic differences in the rendering of the two. To my dismay, the stage version was dark, lit sparsely by overhead spotlights, and the dancers often moved in the dark areas of the stage. The visceral intimacy the film produced was severed. I sat–I believe in the balcony–watching the dance get lost in so much space.

I know translating a dance into film and filming a live performance are not the same thing, but their challenges are somewhat shared.

There are choreographers out there that have inherently cinematic ideas about dance. I’m not sure Morris is one of them. Perhaps another live broadcast with a more sensitive director might be able to show us an alternative.

Apollinaire responds:
Hey, Counter Critic, thanks for writing. Really interesting!
First, about the telecast of “Mozart Dances,” I think the camera work on the dance is really elegant and attentive to its nuances. I love the dissolves at the circular center of the dance–the second, adagio movement of the second of the three dances–when the men hold hands and wind under each other’s arms in communal swirls. And I love that the cameras move to the edges of the stage for the third dance, with all its solos, and exits and entrances (which are so beautiful, so ephemeral.) To the credit of director Kirk Browning, the dance didn’t blow me away any less on camera.
Still, it risked losing me again and again. The number of times the camera forsakes the dancing for shots of pianists Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki in the pit is infuriating. Once or twice would have been good, just to let us know there were eminences below–in case, for example, we were deaf–but over and over again? Terrible.
The pianists may be producing sublime music, but they’re nothing to look at. The dance is the thing to see. Every time the camera zooms in on Ax squinting at the score, it pulls us out of the dance and offers a souvenir in its place, a framing boast of how deluxe this event is. It’s like being handed a postcard of the Grand Canyon when you’re standing right in front of it: vulgar (in the guise of tony) and perverse.
As for dances like “Amelia” that are not a simulacrum of a performance but something in themselves, designed specifically for the camera, my favorite example so far is Mats Ek’s film of his “Sleeping Beauty.” Son of the renowned Bergman actor Anders Ek, Ek Jr. understands that the camera can reshape the space to enhance the story.
His revamp of “Beauty” begins at the girl’s conception: the joyous lovemaking that results in her birth. (Isn’t that a lovely idea–that beauty emerges out of the joy two people create together?) To show us how excited the lovers are to have each other, Ek starts with the queen (Gunilla Hammar) alone inside a bare room. She races along its perimeter, sweeping her hands along the walls as if it were she who were in the womb–tracing its contours before it was breached. We’re inside the room with her.
She leans into the wall as if to catch its heartbeat, and the camera stands right at the divide between inside and out, so we see her sweetheart (George Elkin) leaning into the wall from the outside.
Ek couldn’t have created the same effect in the theater because we’d see both sides of the wall all along. We wouldn’t suddenly be surprised by their leaning their heads together, one on one side of this membrane and the other on the other.
But even when the camera is serving simply as a documenting device, certain givens of dance come through more clearly onscreen. Several years ago, I was watching some ancient tape I’d borrowed from the library of Great Moments from the Kirov Ballet when I arrived at the part where a very young Baryshnikov (he looks about 16) does an impossible variation from “Don Quixote”–perfectly.
He follows pirouettes a la seconde by pirouettes in the same direction (en dehors) in attitude back without ever getting to put his foot down to give a little push for momentum, poor boy!
To translate: with his leg like a plank out to the side, he whips around in double and triple turns, then with only a bend of his standing leg to help, crooks the onetime plank leg to the back and whips around some more. Then the plank move again. Repeat, without rinsing, a dozen times.
It was amazing that Baryshnikov could get the momentum to keep revolving. His trick, I realized, was to strenuously pull the foot of his attitude leg to the back so his body would follow–like a tail wagging its dog.
Once I realized that, a grand epiphany arrived (about 20 years late, but oh, well): one of the dramas of virtuosic dancing is the way the dancing turns you into a mechanism, then back into a person–the alternation and tension between those two poles. Every time Baryshnikov had his leg in second, he was a person, every time his leg was winding his body around, he became a mechanism, a turning top–back and forth miraculously.
I don’t think I would ever have had that thought at a live performance. The screen’s muting of Baryshnikov’s humanity made it possible.
Reader Jennifer Smith of Wisconsin writes:
You may be interested to know about a program Wisconsin Public Television did in the last few years called “Dances for Television.”
Here’s a brief description:

The program features site-specific dances filmed on location in and around Dane County. Each vignette is created in and of the landscape, and speaks to metaphors of the senses, relationships and the changing of the seasons.

The dances were choreographed by Li Chiao-Ping with the specific intent of creating dance for the television camera.
Apollinaire responds: Thank you for writing, Jennifer. The work sounds really interesting.
Next week: A riff on Counter Critic’s brilliant take on Mark Morris’s musicality for “Mozart Dances.”

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