The camera has always loved dancers. But can a dance film move beyond conventional beauty, and speak about more than dance itself?
As director of the Ailey company, Robert Battle pushed his own creativity aside. The pandemic brought it back.
The Lincoln Center dance film festival is the standard-bearer, having been in operation the longest. It marks a couple of milestones this month: its 50th anniversary and the return to fully in-person programming. (In 2021, it presented a mix of in-person and virtual screenings.) You’d expect it to offer artful, elegantly produced feature-length documentaries about major players in the dance world, and it does.
Yet “Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra,” about the Aboriginal dance company in Sydney, also explores towering social issues that parallel the civil rights movement and continue to resonate around the globe. Gracefully directed by Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin, the film plunges viewers into the racial discrimination from which Bangarra arose in 1989. The dance company emerged as a gently assertive and triumphant rebuke, embracing Indigenous culture and its connection to the earth, and giving it contemporary expression.
“Firestarter” proceeds seamlessly at a calm, steady pace, which intensifies the painful moments — and they are sharp, and memorable. It is at once a convulsive history, an essay on tragedy and resilience (of the three brothers who started Bangarra, only Artistic Director Stephen Page survives), and a tribute to the primal, sustaining power of art.
“Storytelling,” says one Bangarra member, “is the best medicine you can have.”
There are similarly provocative meditations on fundamental human values in several of the Dance on Camera shorts. “Eileen,” another Australian submission, is a four-minute stunner. It stars 107-year-old modern dancer Eileen Kramer, whom press materials describe as “possibly the oldest performer and choreographer working today.” Kramer is one of the most beguiling dancers you could ever hope to see. Yet this lingering view of her is bigger — much bigger — than a dance experience.
Kramer performs mostly seated on a chair, her hair pearly and glowing, the skin of her bare arms like shirred silk. She flutters a fan, causing tendrils of smoke to twist in the air around her. She rolls her hands in space and curls her arms around her body, transported by the lute and clarinet music, but also, it seems, by an irrepressible spirit of wildness. She shatters all manner of expectations, and it’s exhilarating. She is uninhibited, at her ease, vivacious, drawing you in with her naturalness and making you feel you’re involved in life itself.
Importantly, this is an encounter you could have only on film, with the intimacy and focus of the camera.
So who is this amazing woman? Kramer is the living legacy of one of Australia’s dance matriarchs, having danced in Sydney in the 1940s with German expressionist choreographer Gertrud Bodenwieser, who’d fled Europe and ultimately helped shape Australian modern dance. “Eileen” is a collaboration between Australian choreographer and filmmaker Sue Healey and Berlin musicians David Orlowsky and David Bergmüller, to accompany the musicians’ album “Alter Ego,” which will be released this spring.
Other shorts in this festival that venture beyond surface fabulousness: The surreal “Dive,” featuring the Scottish Ballet, with its cleverly edited solos and duets that appear and disappear, is an homage to French artist Yves Klein. It’s an immersion in the intense blue color that Klein prized, as well as the grace and simplicity of his work.
“Places, Please,” written, directed and choreographed by Reed Luplau, takes us into an artist therapy session, where Broadway actors, a dancer, a drag artist and others talk about their pandemic-related job losses. Most speak longingly about their art and their undiminished passion. But one woman bitterly cuts in: “I feel like we’re sitting here glorifying a business that has taken so much from us,” she says. “Look at us: None of it f---ing mattered.” It’s like a candy shell suddenly cracks.
The festival wraps up with a screening of “Cabaret,” Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the Broadway musical. Like the festival, this film, which won eight Oscars, is 50 years old. It’s fitting to end with an homage to Fosse, whose spectacular style is magnificent on film, where it cuts to the chase with acid-tipped honesty.
MacKenzie Scott’s multimillion-dollar message: Art is essential everywhere, not just in museums and theaters