Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance on PBS, film Anna Karenina, Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker on Blu-ray
Hermes Pan, The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire
By John C. Franceschina. Oxford University Press. 2012. 306 pages. Illustrated. $35.
Growing up in Memphis as the son of Greek immigrants, Hermes Pan (1909–1990) copped dance steps from the family’s African-American household help. Fast-forward to the Depression, when the self-taught Hollywood choreographer’s black-and-white dance fantasies for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers offered Americans escape. The versatile dance director whose career encompassed nearly 100 films is the subject of Hermes Pan, The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire.
Pan got his start at 14 in New York. A dance-crazed kid, he performed in amateur theatricals and speakeasies. Leaping to Los Angeles by 1930, he assisted on Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Astaire took a liking to him. Pan became the star’s most enduring creative partner and his lifelong friend.
Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan rehearsing “I’ll Be Hard to Handle.” Photo courtesy Franceschina’s collection.
Franceschina, a former Penn State theater professor, translates Pan’s enormous IMDB vitae, often ploddingly, into prose, touring through the creation of numbers like “The Piccolino” and “Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat (1935); “Bojangles of Harlem,” from Swingtime (1936); “Fun House,” from A Damsel in Distress (it garnered Pan an Academy Award for Dance Direction in 1937); and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” on roller skates, from Shall We Dance (1937). A jump to 1963–64 finds Pan deeply entrenched in Hollywood, working on features like The Pink Panther, My Fair Lady, and Cleopatra. Pan’s great skill, asserts Franceschina, lay in his dance-transmogrifications of mundane life situations. His vitality, work ethic, and ability to please both chorus girls and studio bosses cemented his career. Handsome and slender, a bizarre doppelganger for Astaire, Pan, a gay man, became an A-list party-goer, the frequent escort of Rita Hayworth. Read this book with YouTube videos by your side. —Debra Levine
Contemporary Dance in Israel
By Deborah Friedes Galili. Interdanza Kultur Elkartea/Asociación Cultural Interdanza. 233 pages. $20 (approx.). www.danceinisrael.com/book.
After witnessing just a few performances by the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premiere dance troupe, Deborah Friedes Galili, an American, was captivated enough to follow them to their home in Tel Aviv.
In Israel she discovered a surprisingly broad and dynamic dance scene and has, in the five years since, become an astute documentarian of Israel’s brand of contemporary dance. Celebrated for their physical fearlessness, raw emotional honesty, and thrilling, if dark, theatrics, these dance artists seem to respond to the country’s own volatile history and complicated existence, even if they are hesitant to admit it.
Galili shares her observations in the newly released Contemporary Dance in Israel, a survey of the artists and institutions that have nurtured dance in this tiny nation. Its short profiles allow readers to hop around without following a linear narrative. Thus, you can learn about how the Suzanne Dellal Centre, established in 1989, revitalized Israeli dance with a mission to support emerging talent, then skip to a profile of solo superstar Ido Tadmor, or discover how Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al turned their offstage romance and commitment to environmentally friendly living into the renowned Vertigo Dance Company. Insights from the artists are culled from the many interviews Galili has collected, as well as research from local sources.
Galili’s intention is not to offer a comprehensive history of dance in the country, though she does provide essential context; nor is it to give critical readings of the work. By focusing on each artist individually, Galili avoids sweeping generalizations about the character of Israeli dance. Potentially overarching themes—such as the Arab-Israeli conflict—are therefore not dealt with as subjects on their own but rather come up only as they relate to the interests of particular artists. Contemporary Dance in Israel is just the start of more research Galili intends to pursue and that she hopes others will contribute to. As she makes clear here, dance in Israel is rich enough to deserve it. —Brian Schaefer
Dance on TV
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, written and directed by Bob Hercules, charts the path of the Joffrey Ballet from its beginnings in 1956 as six dancers in a station wagon to the erection of the Joffrey Tower in Chicago in 2008. The documentary, which runs 82 minutes and will air on PBS on Dec. 28 (it’s also available on DVD for $19.95 at www.joffreymovie.com), evinces the Joffrey’s resilience after disasters including the 1962 schism with Rebekah Harkness and persistent financial problems.
Trinity. Photo courtesy Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance.
In its most vivid segments, the film captures the spirit of the 1960s and ‘70s when the youth rebellion, fueled by resistance to the Vietnam War and the rise of pop culture, brilliantly paralleled the revivals of Kurt Jooss’ antiwar ballet The Green Table and Leonide Massine’s dadaist Parade, and the premieres of Joffrey’s psychedelic Astarte and Arpino’s rock-fest Trinity. (Full disclosure: This writer appears in clips of Trinity filmed by PBS in 1975.) As former ballerina Trinette Singleton says, “We were classically trained and then expected to do everything else.” That ethos of contemporary ballet, radical 40 years ago and exemplified by Twyla Tharp’s eye-opening premieres for the company, is now the norm for nearly all ballet companies.
The documentary loses steam after the recounting of Robert Joffrey’s death from complications from AIDS in 1988, and when it moves into the dispiriting years of when Arpino was struggling with running the company. It was named the Joffrey Ballet for a reason: He was the visionary, not Arpino.
Strangely missing from the film is any mention of the Ashton ballets that Joffrey brought to the attention of the American public, or the making of the movie The Company by Robert Altman. And it would have been illuminating to hear from more of the company’s extraordinary ballerinas, such as Francesca Corkle and Beatriz Rodriguez.
Ashley Wheater, the company’s current artistic director, says, “Joffrey was the Diaghilev of the mid-century.” Quite true, and a real reason to see this film. May the next Diaghilev step forward in the 21st century. —Joseph Carman
“Film is basically time and movement, so why not really think about that movement?” Joe Wright, the director of Anna Karenina, made good on this statement by bringing choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on board for Wright’s Hollywood movie, which opened in limited release Nov. 16.
is highly theatrical. While based on Tolstoy’s classic novel, the action takes place entirely in a theater, although scenes do shift to other locations. A number of dancers in Cherkaoui’s company, Eastman, perform in the film alongside actors Keira Knightley and Jude Law. (Eastman’s Guro Nagelhus Schia has an acting role as one of the household maids.)
In addition to helping the actors with their dance steps in the ballroom scenes, Cherkaoui also was involved in extensive pre-production movement work with the actors, with the aid of some of his dancers. One, Paul Zivkovich, who also appears as an extra in the film, says that Wright “wanted to put in a lot of movement to underscore the surreal aspect of what was happening in each scene. So how to pick up a glass, or where they looked, or how they sat—all that was considered. Certainly on set, it really shifted how they approached the dialogue and the characters.” —Kina Poon
Kultur. $29.99. 78 minutes.
Even if you’ve seen the film of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker a dozen times, you’ve never seen it like this. The 1977 recording has been remastered in high definition for Blu-ray, the better to experience the unforgettable performances by Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland as the Nutcracker and Clara, with other members of American Ballet Theatre. As stated in these pages, together they “transformed The Nutcracker from family fare into an adult dissertation on lyrical longing.” Thirty-five years later, his soaring jump and her ethereal delicacy remain the gold standard. —K. P.