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What Makes a Dance Documentary Captivating?
Just as a dancer shapes a phrase with tension and release, a documentary filmmaker often gives equal weight to obstacles and triumph. The maker of Mr. Gaga, Tomer Heymann, took nine years to convey the layers of Ohad Naharin's art—and the depth of confusion he stirs within us. In 2009's The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia, Inna Sahakyan made viewers care about an obscure subject by showing a poignant student/mentor relationship between two tightrope dancers. A good documentary can cover any genre of dance, but what does it take to make a film grab the hearts and minds of its audience?
Capturing the Ephemeral
We can never actually capture a dance, so much as create an homage to it. A documentarian though can transmit an artist's magnetism with the collaboration of a great team and the skill of a storyteller. Lighting is a filmmaker's paint. It adds art, style, depth and heart to every scene. Framing and angling the camera in certain ways can clarify the emotional arch of a moment or phrase. Audio can emphasize the natural sounds of a dancer's feet and breath, bringing us closer to them. And editing the footage is an art similar to choreography; it demands musicality and a gift for suspense.
Beyond Interviews and Performance Footage
In La Chana, one of five documentaries nominated for the 2017 European Film Awards, director Lucija Stojevic evokes the mysteries of rhythm, the spirit and the power of silence, while taking us under the skin of a mature flamenco dancer named La Chana. Rather than simply weaving together performance footage and interviews—the architecture of many documentaries—Stojevic creates a sense of intimacy with her subject. She captures both her vulnerability and her strength, juxtaposing La Chana's everyday life with her ecstasy in performance, creating an emotional wave that reverberates with the viewer.
Making Dance Matter to Non-Dancers
As Libby Geist, executive producer for ESPN Films, says, a documentarian always has to look for great stories but then think from the perspective of the viewer barraged by data and ask "So what?" Keeping in mind why a particular ballet, dancer or company is magical, a filmmaker might pinpoint something of universal interest or cultural relevance, so that their documentary reaches an audience beyond dance lovers. If the creative team takes the time to question and probe, examine the footage, and, most importantly, gain the trust of the artist, the essence of the artist will reveal itself so that the answer to the question of "Who cares?" will be "Everyone!"
Respecting the Process
Often a documentary takes years to complete, either because of fundraising difficulties or because the kundalini of the film is just not rising. Only towards the last months of editing did Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, the team behind award-winning Ballets Russes (2005), find a way to make audiences feel the joy of these historical ballet performers. As curators and programmers often say, within every dance film is a shorter film crying to come out.
Telling Dancer-Driven Stories
Stojevic initially took on the task of creating La Chana with the understanding that she was going to unfold the untold reasons behind the disappearance of this self-taught prodigy in her prime. However, during the course of filming, she learned that La Chana wanted to focus on her spirituality. "I was born to dance," she says in the film. "When I dance, I am in my light." The details of the domestic violence that cut her down as a younger woman are largely skirted. But she hints at her years of despair and the physical woes of aging just enough to make us rejoice over her triumphant stage comeback. An emotionally courageous film celebrates an artist's connection with their soul, and makes us consider our own.
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.
"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.
He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.
He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.
Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.
Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.
What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.
At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.