Dancing with the Camera: Ezra Hurwitz on Capturing Dance on Film
Sometimes it feels like you can't go to a ballet company's website, check Facebook, or research a new ballet without coming across one of Ezra Hurwitz's stylish dance shorts. In just a couple of years, this former Miami City Ballet dancer has become the king of the dance teaser. Already, he's worked with San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet, the Kennedy Center, American Ballet Theatre and Martha Graham Dance Company. At a recent Dance/USA meeting, one of the speakers touted his work, encouraging everyone present to hire him for their marketing campaigns.
With his dance background and ease with social media platforms, Hurwitz seems to have stumbled into a vacuum that no-one had really realized was clamoring to be filled: well-produced, sophisticated short films that evoke the excitement of live performance and the creative process behind it. By showcasing ballet's athleticism and rigor, he makes it feel spontaneous and of our time.
I caught up with Hurwitz recently in New York, and we talked about how he got started, and where he thinks his strengths lie.
Photo via ezrahurwitz.com
How did you get into film?
I was working for a photographer in Miami while I was dancing at Miami City Ballet [2006-2014]. Later, I started shooting photography for the company.
I always knew I wasn't going to dance forever, and I had other interests, so I would use our layoffs to work in other areas.
Then, I got injured, and I came back to New York to rehab. I was bored, so I started working with Ellen Barr in the New York City Ballet video department. She had been producing content for NYCB, and I thought it was great. No other company was doing anything at that level. I was also naïve. I thought: What's the reason for that? I didn't realize there was a price tag attached; film is really expensive.
Then I left Miami City Ballet, went to Columbia University for business strategy and film, and simultaneously started taking film-specific classes at the New School for some hands-on experience.
What was your first dance film?
I made a short film with my boyfriend, Gonzalo García of NYCB. I filmed him in our apartment with our cat. He walks to the Koch and rehearses by himself. Now I look at it and I think it's terrible, but at the time, people were impressed by it. And I did something similar for Sara Mearns. That's kind of how I got started.
Are you a film buff?
Right now I'm watching 20 Stephen Spielberg films—that's my goal for the summer. I work with a lot of film buffs; a lot of directors of photography want to be directing or creating feature films. I kind of feel like because I already had a really artistically fulfilling career, I'm not as precious as some of the people I work with. I was that diehard artist trying to give everything for the art-form; and now this is a second career.
What are your favorite dance movies?
The Red Shoes. I like the cinematography because it's classic, golden age of cinema. And there are those crazy shots, and that surreal dream sequence that seamlessly transitions from performance to something more subjective. I definitely think it informs the way I plan the narrative in my dance films.
What do you think of dance on TV in series like Dance in America and Live at Lincoln Center?
Those kinds of things are really important because they bring dance to so many people. If you love dance and you have an awareness of the choreographers and the legacy of the work, then that content is appealing. But what the dance companies are trying to do now is bring in new audiences and new eyes.
How important is creating a narrative in your films?
Even if it's not an explicit narrative, you need an arc if you want people to remember something or take something away.
You don't necessarily tell the story the ballet is telling.
For things that haven't premiered yet, no-one knows what the ballet is going to become. You're taking a leap of faith. But I try to use the vocabulary of the ballet. For example, for Justin Peck's In the Countenance of Kings, I wanted to show examples of the movement from across the 30-minute work, all in one minute, so we had to link together steps that weren't necessarily sequential, we had to find transitions that weren't there, and set steps to music that they weren't set to in the piece.
In the films I made for Myles Thatcher's Ghost in the Machine and Peck's Heatscape, I also featured the choreographer. We wanted to engage people in the excitement of the new work being created and what that looked like. When people have more context, then they have a greater appreciation for the work when they see it for the first time.
In many ways, it sounds like you're acting as a choreographer, using pre-existing material.
Yeah. I always try to show angles you wouldn't be able to see in the theater. And that involves some restaging. For Ghost in the Machine, I wanted to film a minute and a half of uninterrupted choreography. We had a steady cam weaving through the dancers, but we didn't want the dancers to be visible as we were moving, so we had the whole cast running with us behind the camera.
Have you worked with any modern dancers?
I did a film with the Martha Graham dancers. I loved them. I was so impressed by how vulnerable and exposed they could be in a second.
How important is musicality to your approach?
It's very much informed by my training at the School of American Ballet. Especially in the editing; you want to use the editing in a way that feels musical and interprets the music as it's meant to be interpreted. It has a lot to do with rhythm. Even when you're editing in silence, you feel an internal rhythm.
How big is your team?
I don't do anything without at least 5 people. There's a director—me, most of the time. A director of photography, an assistant camera operator, usually a steady cam operator, and a producer.
What are some of your non-dance projects?
I'm working right now in live entertainment doing things for Broadway. And I'm doing something for Humana Health Insurance. I love the idea of figuring out how to make this insurance spot look beautiful, and they can afford to make it look beautiful!
What do you see as the relationship between the films that you make and the works that are the subjects of your films?
For some people, this is the closest they'll get to these dances. If you're in a flyover state and don't have the money to go to one of these metropolitan areas, I would love to offer an experience that feels directly informed by what you might see at Lincoln Center. That is always going to be a unique experience, but the stage for that kind of art is larger now and there are different ways to experience it.
Why do you think you turned to film?
I saw how beautiful things looked on film and I felt I that it would allow me to keep something for myself in a way I couldn't when I was dancing. I wanted to have something concrete and tangible to hold onto.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.
In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.
I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.
—Terry, Philadelphia, PA