Career Advice

Dancing with the Camera: Ezra Hurwitz on Capturing Dance on Film

Still via ezrahurwitz.com

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.

And Wim Wenders' Pina.

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.

The Conversation
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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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