San Francisco 2012 Dance Film Festival
Ninth Street Independent Film Center
San Francisco, CA
March 15-18, 2012
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano 2012
Over the last fifteen year or so, several attempts -- most notably by choreographer/filmmaker Cynthia Pepper's FOOTAGE -- have been made in San Francisco to establish what New York and Los Angeles have had for years, a Dance Film Festival. So when Greta Schoenberg jumped into the risky business of producing this type of event in an underground gallery in 2008, she was in no way assured of success. But a success the Festival has become. This year included full-length films, primarily documentaries, in addition to the more experimental selections where, I think, the real innovation takes place.
Filming dance used to be expensive but the advent of video has vastly reduced that cost. Yet it seems to be one of the peculiarities of joining these two genres of image-making, commonly called "screendance," that their creators prefer to work within very restricted time frames. I am not quite sure whether this happens to be a fashion or whether there is something intrinsic to the process that favors short and concise art making. Some of these films did feel like haikus--intense, condensed and evocative. Others I could imagine in longer shape.
The interest in screendance lies in the myriad ways through which film and dance connect. Perhaps the most remarkable quality about the Festival and, I suspect, of the nature of the field is the extraordinary breadth of dance films being made today. All of this year's selection date from 2010/2011.
They included such gems as the British "Beautiful Illusion" which superimposed x-rays on all the points of stress and possible injury to the bone structure of an exquisitely dancing ballerina. The visually pure "Love Song", from Israel, was simplicity itself: a man, a rose and the desert. Kate Duhamel's "Where Do you Live" edited two dancers onto New York skylines to brilliant and whimsical effect. Brian Oakes' tiny "Marie" consisted of dancing dots but made you wonder whether you were looking at scurrying ants in the sand or herds of gazelles seen from an airplane. Olof Werngren's haunting "Branner Staden" offered people frozen inside themselves because, probably, a lack of connection to their environment.
Isabel Rocamore's British "Body of War" demonstrated how the genre can very successfully expand into longer time frame. The twenty-minute film cut to the bone; it first had two soldiers, one British, one Serbian, talk about their soldiering. It ended in a piece of choreography in which the two of them demonstrated the expertise of hand-to-hand combat training. Rarely have horror and beauty been so intertwined. Slightly shorter and exquisite for its visual rhythms was David Rousseve's mix of documentary and fantasy, "Two Seconds After Laughter," about idiosyncratic Javanese/American dancer Sri Susilowati.
Not all of the films communicated equally well. Such was the rigor and icy formality of local filmmaker RJ Muna's work that he might as well have used folded paper instead of dancers for his "Origami." The slick New London Calling," with children at play, looked too much like a marketing piece for youth programs. Local director Nara Denning's "The Pendulum Heart" started on a Cocteau note but ended with a touch of sentimentality.
Of the documentaries, which also included "Never Stand Still" on the history of the Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival, I saw Fabrice Herrault's fascinating "Claude Bessy: Lignes d'une Vie" and (in a preview) "Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance."
Bessy, for years the director of the Paris Opera Ballet School, has had the reputation of being an exceedingly severe, even cruel taskmaster to her sometimes quite young charges. The film, clearly, is meant to mitigate that reputation by pointing out that Bessy believes that Ballet is a very exacting profession, and that she came of age during the Second World War when life in Paris and at POB was exceedingly difficult. (Roland Petit in his autobiography "J'ai dansé sur les flots" confirms that experience) Bessy, whose own voice is ever present, also is potrayed as a highly capable administrator. It was under her auspices that the School got its beautiful home in Nanterre. Still to see her, even today, march through various premises, she looks every bit like a general in charge.
Of perhaps greater interest was the film's documentation of Bessy's career as a prominent POB étoile. Apparently, unusual for her time as ballerina, she left the company to perform with other companies, among them what is now American Ballet Theater. Despite her insistence on rigorous, conservative training methods, as a dancer she always looked beyond the rigid confines of the academic tradition. She danced for Gene Kelly who choreographed a piece on her. Quite wonderful is the inclusion of rare documentary clips from choreographers as different as Maurice Béjart and Serge Lifar. These sections are precious.
If Bob Hercules' "Joffrey: Mavericks of American Ballet" offered nothing except the footage of Joffrey repertoire, it would be a welcome addition to dance history. Seeing the company's reconstruction of both rehearsals and excerpts of Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table", Twyla Tharp's "Deuce Coupe" and the Diaghilev era's "Parade" and "The Rite of Spring" says more about the company than much of the verbiage from former company members. Whether, Joffrey will rise again, now under the leadership of former SFBallet Principal Ashley Wheater, remains to be seen.
Without in any way denigrating Robert Joffrey, and to a much lesser extent Gerald Arpino's contribution to opening up the concept of ballet, to pretend that in the 1960's there was only NY City Ballet and American Ballet Theater is shortsighted. There was American ballet West of the Hudson. There is a place for hagiography but it has its limits.