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A History Of Dance On Screen - A film by Reiner E. Moritz (2014) [90:00]
Featuring Alvin Ailey, Pina Bausch, Maurice Béjart, Matthew Bourne, Margot Fonteyn, Martha Graham, John Neumeier, Rudolf Nureyev, Anna Pavlova, Roland Petit, Sasha Waltz and others
Sound format: PCM stereo
Picture format: 16:9
Region code: 0
DVD 9, NTSC ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 690 DVD [90:00]
Silent film was an important art form, encompassing much more than just Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops. In an occasional quest for artistic credibility, some Hollywood studios even felt it worth filming opera stars in their "greatest hits", despite the fact that the singers' voices obviously went completely unheard. Toscanini's longtime lover Geraldine Farrar, for example, starred in a silent screen adaptation of Carmen (1915) that must have completely bemused anyone who had caught one of her acclaimed sung performances in the role at the New York Met.
Filmed ballet in the era of silent film is, however, distinctly rarer. This documentary includes a few brief surviving clips. We are offered Loïe Fuller's famous serpentine dance performed, in painstakingly hand-coloured footage, by a vivacious but sadly anonymous artist in 1896; Ellen Price demonstrating Danish ballet's distinctive and enduring Bournonville heritage in a brief La Sylphide extract from 1903; Isadora Duncan cavorting vigorously before an admiring audience and Tamara Karsavina coyly demonstrating a few ballet exercises, both filmed in 1920; Anna Pavlova preserving her immensely popular Dying Swan for posterity during a brief trip to Hollywood in 1924; and the influential German pedagogue Mary Wigman filmed two years later in her expressionist showpiece Witch's dance. But, as the doyen of British dance critics Clement Crisp points out in this film, we have nothing at all that preserves the art of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and very little that demonstrates the considerable achievements of the successor companies headed by Colonel Wassily de Basil and René Blum.
The arrival of sound film technology in the late 1920s meant, however, that dance began to be seen far more regularly on the screen. In the 1930s, Hollywood imported Broadway dancers who brought their distinctively flexible and more visually exciting techniques to the West Coast. As a result - and, thanks especially to the contributions of Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and, later, Gene Kelly - filmed dance became familiar to mass audiences.
The way in which Fred Astaire was filmed raises a particularly interesting point about the relationship between dance and the camera. Should the latter merely record what happens in front of it or should it be used creatively - along, these days, with other advanced technology such as blue screen backgrounds - so as to enhance the overall artistic experience? The contributors to this documentary appear to be divided on the question. Choreographer Matthew Bourne suggests that the relatively straightforward way in which Astaire was filmed - with his whole body usually in shot, long takes and very few edits - allows audiences to experience dance in a "real" way. On the other hand, Hermes Pan, who worked closely with the dancer over many years to develop some of his most famous sequences, ascribes their impact and memorable qualities to the fact that both the people on the screen and the camera itself are dancing.
With the background established, this documentary thereafter becomes something of a showcase for filmed records of innovative, contemporary dance from about 1930 onwards. Classical ballet on film is excluded, apart from a brief glimpse of the Entry of the shades from La Bayadère that, effected on a flat stage rather than the usual ramp, loses much of its visual impact and is, in any case, unrelated to the main thrust of the film.
Topics that are covered include the rise in status of male dancers in the past 50 years, with Rudolf Nureyev’s arrival and his subsequent partnership with Margot Fonteyn identified as events that utterly changed the nature of dance in the West; the move away from narrative story to dance for its own sake, so that even choreographer Kenneth MacMillan himself, we are told, wasn't entirely certain what his final work The Judas Tree (1992) was actually "about"; the pervasive influence on modern dance of both Broadway and contemporary popular techniques such as break dancing and hip-hop; and the growing trend towards creating dance specifically for the video camera rather than for staged performances. Each of those could easily have justified a longer and more detailed examination - if not a whole documentary to themselves - but as a whistle-stop tour d'horizon of some of the main features of recent dance history this documentary is certainly a very useful tool.
By the time it reaches its conclusion we are left in little doubt that the medium of film has moved far beyond its original role of simply memorialising particular performances. Perhaps the most perceptive and provocative comments come from choreographer John Neumeier. He suggests that an effective dance film - made, necessarily, by a director who loves the work in question - offers even more to its audience than they would gain by seeing a staged performance. The supporting argument he advances is that film focuses viewers' attention on what the director feels that they ought to be looking at in the performance and prevents them being distracted by other elements.
Many will no doubt find the “the director knows best” approach somewhat patronising and didactic - not to say positively authoritarian. However, along with the other contributions to this documentary, it certainly does give one at the very least pause for thought.