If the Dancer Dances


The dancers rehearse.

(2018) Documentary (Monument) Stephen Petronio, Merce Cunningham (archival), Meg Harper, Davalois Fearon, Gino Grenek, Rashaun Mitchell, Sandra Neels, Jaqlin Medlock, Barrington Hinds, Albert Reid, Silas Riener, Nick Sciscione, Gus Solomons Jr., Emily Stone, Joshua Tuason, David Vaughan, Andrea Weber, Mike McGinnis, Mondo Morales, Melissa Toogood. Directed by Maia Wechsler

 

Please forgive me but the first bit of this review is going to be more about me than the movie – my knowledge of modern dance is abysmal. I am unfamiliar with the important figures in it, the innovators or the dance companies that push the boundaries of the art form. It’s not that I can’t appreciate grace when I see it, but often these days that’s not a factor. Perhaps because I’m not a graceful person whatsoever, but when I see dancers move in certain ways, I am awe-stricken. When I see them moving in ways that are more athletic than anything I tend to lose interest. You should know that going into this review.

Merce Cunningham is a towering icon of modern dance whose pieces worked in collaboration with some of the great artists of his time. Rain Forest, a 1968 piece apparently inspired by his youth in Washington state, utilized set design by Andy Warhol and costumes by Jasper Johns as well as music by David Tudor. Cunningham’s work was innovative and diametrically different from anything that dance was used to; most dance companies are constantly in motion but Cunningham used stillness, slow motion and held positions which were physically challenging to the dancers of his company. Cunningham was the lead dancer in the piece as he was in most of his own pieces until he was almost 90. Cunningham continued to work creating new choreography until he died in 2009.

Stephen Petronio runs a highly respected dance company of his own. His company up until 2015 had always performed original compositions. Petronio was grappling with the idea of legacy; how do we keep dance pieces alive after the choreographers are gone. Yes, there is video but if a choreography exists without anyone dancing it, how alive is it really?

Petronio decided to take on Rain Forest and utilized three members of Cunningham’s company – Meg Harper, Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber – to teach his company the moves. We begin to see that there are vast differences between styles of modern dance. Cunningham rehearsed without music, using a stopwatch and clapped beats to give the dancers their cues. The Cunningham dancers are also having to teach Petronio’s dancers an entire new way of movement, one that emanates from the back rather than the legs. For the dancers it means a whole lot of cramping.

Cunningham is treated here with hero-worship and to be honest I found that disconcerting after a while. Not that he doesn’t deserve the respect but at times it felt like there wasn’t any objectivity whatsoever not only from the dancers who could be excused for their hagiography but from the filmmakers as well, who needed to be less worshipful. Producer Lise Friedman was also a member of the Cunningham company so perhaps that has something to do with it.

This is definitely a niche film. People who are fans of modern dance or at least well-acquainted with it will find this fascinating. Others might find it confusing and dull. Fans of performing arts in general will appreciate the backstage look at rehearsals and how the work is slowly translated from Cunningham’s dancers to Petronio’s. It is in that respect a fascinating process.

REASONS TO SEE: An intimate and fascinating look backstage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Verges on the hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Long Lost

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Above & Beyond: Giving Up the Day Job


EDM goes acoustic ensemble.

(2018) Concert Film (Abramorama) Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, Paavo Siljamaki. Directed by Myles Desenberg and Paul Dugdale

 

From time to time musicians feel a need to reinvent themselves and/or their sound. This can be done for a number of reasons; to keep their music from stagnating, to keep their own interest high, to move into a more commercially viable arena or to find success where they had found none previously.

The latter is not the problem for the Grammy award-winning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) group Above & Beyond. The core trio of Grant, McGuinness and Siljamaki has inspired millions of fans with their aggressive beats tempered with chill-down breaks that gave them one of the most rabid and loyal fan bases in all of electronic music, no small feat. It was the reaction of their fans to those breaks that inspired them to take the steps from the DJ booth into the recording studio with acoustic guitars in hand and pianos on their mind instead of samplers.

The results are actually gorgeous. Their goal is playing the venerable Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, one of the most distinctive and respected concert venues on Earth – think of it in terms of similar to Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and Royal Albert Hall (which they also play during the course of the film). For the Hollywood Bowl concert they enlist an orchestra of L.A. classical musicians to accompany their 17-musician band (which includes four vocalists; one male and three females. It sounds in many ways like Darkwave music – a kind of ethereal goth – crossed with ambient pop. These are acoustic versions of the band’s own songs, sometimes with lyrics added but re-imagined for the concert stage rather than the dance club. Not being a fan of EDM myself, I was unfamiliar with their music so it came as a surprise to me that the songs were so inherently musical. It’s caused me to reassess my opinion of EDM in general.

The film doesn’t get any favors from their marketing department who characterize it as following the journey of the band from the DJ booth to the Hollywood Bowl. I suppose in a strict sense that’s true, but this is almost entirely a concert film rather than a musical documentary; we don’t see much of how the band transitions, mainly seeing rehearsal gigs and some backstage footage and interviews. The film follows the concert film cliché of moving from one song interspersed with rapturous fan reactions to some interview footage and talking head appearances from the band, to another song with rapturous fan reactions to watching the band hanging out on a New York basketball court to another song…you get the drift. I was expecting yin and I got yang which can be disconcerting when you’re viewing the film – be warned in that regard.

The fan reactions seem a little over-the-top from time to time. Some critics have sneered that it is manipulative, but aren’t all concert films essentially gifts to their fans? Of course the fans are portrayed as reverent. Honestly I wonder sometimes if various online movie review sites and daily newspapers hire people because they are absolutely ignorant of how movies work.

As with most concert films the appeal is going to mostly be with the band’s core fans but that doesn’t mean people who aren’t into the band can’t enjoy this either. It might very well make some new fans for the band which I suspect is icing on the cake for them. It might not convince you to paint your face with Day-Glo colors, grab some glowsticks and head out to your local palladium to dance and sweat your ass off but it may well make you wish, as I do, that the soundtrack to this film and that concert is eventually released. I would buy that in a New York minute.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely stunning. This might very well change your appreciation of EDM bands as it did mine.
REASONS TO STAY: The film utilizes standard concert film tropes. I could have used much more background about the transition from electronic than acoustic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the group hadn’t performed in acoustic venues regularly, they have released two acoustic albums prior to the Hollywood Bowl show depicted here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Disaster Artist

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith


Watching the world go by - and photographing it as it does.

Watching the world go by – and photographing it as it does.

(2016) Documentary (Lumiere) Carla Bley, Steve Reich, Sy Johnson, Dan Morgenstern, Bill Crow, David Amram, Phil Woods, Harry Colomby, Steve Swallow, Freddy Red, Ben Ratliff, Sam Stephenson, Charles Harbutt, John Morris, Harold Feinstein, Robert Northern, Chuck Israels, David Rothman, John Cohen, Robin D.G. Kelley, Carman Moore, Vicki Goldberg. Directed by Sara Fishko

Florida Film Festival 2016

From the 50s into the 60s, New York City was legitimately the center of the universe. It almost glowed with a creative vibe, with poets, writers, photographers, musicians…everything was happening in New York. It was an exciting time to be alive.

That era is gone, although New York continues to throb with artistic activity. However, nobody can deny that the era I referred to was something of a golden age. In a small loft on Sixth Avenue, jazz musicians would come and jam and hang out in the apartment of Hall Overton, a Julliard instructor and composer of classical music who was discovering jazz. Folks like Zoot Sims and Thelonious Monk were regular visitors and painter Salvador Dali would drop in from time to time. Young musicians like Carla Bley and Steve Reich (ho would eventually become a noted composer) also were regulars.Next door, acclaimed Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith documented everything, not only in photographs but also on audio tapes.

Smith was already a former war correspondent and currently a successful photographer for Life with his photo essays winning awards and acclaim. However, his obsessive and compulsive tendencies led him to leave his suburban home and family for a dilapidated building in the Flower District not zoned for residential use. There, jazz musicians would gather for all night jams without fear of waking the neighbors.

The footage here is not just of Smith’s incredible photos, although they are the centerpiece, but there is also film footage from the era as well. While the extraordinary talents that were making music in the loft made for subjects that span time, for me part of the fascination is Smith’s use of his window as a kind of peephole into the lives of those on the streets below as he documented people going about their business, unaware that their image was being preserved forever. People simply going about their day doing mundane things…I don’t know why, but that kind of thing creates a connection for me that spans across the decades and makes the era relatable. Maybe there are pictures of you and I somewhere that we don’t know about, in an era even more obsessed with documenting everything than Smith was.

But mostly, the attraction are the musicians. Smith went to great lengths to make sure he captured everything, installing microphones everywhere, even drilling through the floor into the loft above to capture rehearsals and jams. When discovered, there were more than 40,000 negatives and 4,000 hours of audio tape recordings ranging from the banal to the sublime. Monk spent two weeks in Overton’s apartment arranging the music that would eventually become The Thelonious Monk Orchestra Live at Town Hall, one of the most iconic works of the jazz legend’s career.

Produced initially as a ten part series on WNYC radio, the producer of that series made the transition to documentary and wisely lets most of the material speak for itself. However, there are some fairly dry passages that feel more like an academic lecture than a film. But all in all, this is a fascinating look at a bygone era and at the luminaries who provided an entire city – and the world – with its energy and creative vibe.

My mom and dad met in New York City during that era and lived in an apartment on the Lower East Side briefly in the late 50s, moving to the suburbs shortly after I was born in 1960. My dad is gone, but my mom still speaks very fondly of that place and that time. Judging from what I saw here, I can see why.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful archival footage of a glorious era. There’s a temptation to close your eyes and just listen to the music.
REASONS TO STAY: More of a seminar than a film.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Smith’s material from this period currently resides at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Road
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mad

Cold Nights, Hot Salsa


Latin passion.

Latin passion.

(2015) Documentary (WDR Productions) Victor Contreras, Katia Morales, Eddie “Mambo King” Torres, Tito Ortos, Tamara Livolsi, Edson Vallon, Albert Torres, Billy Fajardo, Katie Marlow. Directed by Edwin Gailits

Some years ago as a rock critic, I did a cover story for the newspaper I worked for on the salsa scene locally. It was concentrated mostly in the Latin Quarter of the town but I wanted to show more than just what preconceptions of the scene might bring; I chose as the person through whose eyes my readers would enter the scene through was an affluent tech company administrator; he was third generation American, had graduated from Stanford and loved to go to the clubs on weekends and dance to the beat of the irresistible music that was played in his home the entire time he grew up. He was young, forward-thinking and often brought his non-Hispanic friends with them. Some went once and never returned but quite a few, he told me, came back almost every time he went dancing and some even on their own.

This film gives us a glimpse at why that happened to a very large extent. Salsa is a form of dance that is sensuous and requires virtually no instruction to become proficient in it. Salsa isn’t about formal moves so much as it is about passion; you either have it in you or you don’t and quite frankly, most of us do. I’ve heard it described as sex without getting naked, and that’s about as accurate a description as I’ve encountered.

An entire competitive salsa dancing scene has sprung up over the past decade or so with a world championship event being broadcast on ESPN. Victor Contreras and Katia Morales are two Canadians living in Montreal who met in a dance company and found a mutual love for salsa that brought them into a romantic relationship. The two became dance partners as well as boyfriend and girlfriend, and tried to hone their craft in a city which isn’t known for its Latin population, although there is a fair portion of Hispanics there.

With the help of teachers like Albert Torres and supporters like fellow dancers Billy Fajardo and Katie Marlow, who are semi-retired from competition and have become head judges for the World Salsa Championships, they hone their craft and eventually win the Canadian championship, earning them the right to compete at the World Championships.

The film follows the couple through their first international competition and through bitter disappointment at the 3rd Annual World Championship. Their relationship undergoes severe stress as they return home to lick their wounds and start over, ever-striving to improve until they are ready to tackle the 4th Annual World Championships in Orlando.

We see an awful lot of rehearsal, but the scenes from the competitions are the most compelling; we see the fluid movements, the almost erotic body positioning, the colorful costumes and the incredible interaction between partners; the rehearsal footage serves to put the finished routines in context as we get a sense of the work that goes in to perfecting these routines.

The trouble is that towards the end we see couple after couple at the championships and it all begins to blend together a little bit. There are a number of different divisions within the Championships and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the differences were between them; some seemed to be more athletic and others more romantic. I would have liked a bit more explanation as to what these different divisions were and how the dancers were judged.

Like a lot of documentaries that take place in competitive environments, the dramatic tension comes from getting to know the participants and gaining a rooting interest in their success. Contreras and Morales are both engaging young people who clearly love to dance and just as clearly love each other, although at times the road is a bit rocky, romantically speaking. While Victor is a bit more outgoing, I found myself more focused on Katia not just because of her beauty but because she has a kind of genuineness that Victor occasionally doesn’t; at times he sounds like he’s reading a promo script rather than speaking from the heart, but that isn’t a bad thing. He’s more articulate in a lot of ways than his partner when he is speaking genuinely.

This is a short documentary, just under an hour long. It is just entering the festival circuit so expect to see it at your local film festival this fall and spring. Likely it will also find it’s way onto either TV broadcast or online streaming service or both; keep an eye out for it when it does.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the dance moves are incredible. Victor and Katia are engaging subjects.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the different dance routines begin to blend together. Could have used an explanation of the different divisions of competition and how the competitions work.
FAMILY VALUES: Some dance-based sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker was inspired to pursue this as a documentary subject after a trip to Havana when he noticed during a walk back to his hotel after a night in the clubs how music was coming out of nearly every open doorway and he observed people dancing on their balconies and in their living rooms.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Turbo Kid

Paul Taylor Creative Domain


An expression of love.

An expression of love.

(2015) Documentary (Resident Artists) Paul Taylor, Amy Young, Andy Labeau, Michael Trubnovec, Robert Kleinendorst, Sean Mahoney, John Tomlinson, Michelle Fleet, Annmaria Mazzini, Michael Novak, Peter Elyakim Taussig, Sean Gallagher, Parisa Khobdeh, Bettie de Jong. Directed by Kate Geis

Dance is the most physical of art forms. It is all about the human body but it is also about the human soul. The athletes who practice it must be physically fit, but also deeply in touch with their emotions. Those who choreograph these dances must have exceptional understanding of the human form, but also of human beings. The best choreographers are the best observers of our species.

Perhaps the most revered choreographer of modern dance is Paul Taylor, whose career spans six impressive decades. He danced for Martha Graham as a soloist and as a choreographer has such iconic works as Esplanade, Dust and Company B. He was, as Graham characterized him, “the naughty boy of dance” and has explored topics as diverse as incest, American imperialism, the afterlife, the effects of war and the natural world and mankind’s place in it.

He has always kept his creative process somewhat close to the vest, but granted documentarian Geis extraordinary access to his 133rd piece, one which would eventually be titled Thee Dubious Memories which has a bit of a Rashomon-like oeuvre as it explores the same events seen by three different sets of eyes. It takes us from the casting through the rehearsals and the film culminates with the performance of the piece.

Those who love dance will need to see this. Geis wisely lets her camera roll through the rehearsals and just captures Taylor at work with his dance company. The dancers themselves are a little bit star-struck and while most of their interviews are essentially excuses to heap praise and adoration on Taylor, some of the dancers – particularly Amy Young – reveal a good deal more about working for him and the demands involved. The filmmakers are clearly reverent about the man and while at times you get a sense that they are gushing a little bit, the respect is clear to see.

Taylor is extremely soft-spoken and to be honest at times almost lulled me to sleep. He is not particularly an exciting or vibrant interview although to be fair, he is a living legend in the dance community and doesn’t especially need to prove anything to anyone. For those who want to see a more exciting presentation of Taylor, they should look no further than the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary Dancemaker.This is meant to be more about his creative process and at times, he seems to rely more on the dancers to spark some sort of inspiration in him than providing inspiration for his dancers to work with. The thing about a creative process however, is that it is of more interest to the creators than to those observing the creation. Caveat emptor.

The rehearsal sequences can be fascinating; you get the sense that Taylor notices everything and some of his notes to his cast show an amazing observational acuity. The dancing sequences both at the rehearsal and through the performance are absolutely magnificent; true devotees may miss the intimacy of a live performance but this remains a testament to Taylor’s genius and preserves one of his works for posterity, so that’s a very good thing. Those who don’t love dance may find this tedious.

At the end of the day, the only thing you really need to understand about dance is what you see onstage and how that makes you feel. Movies are very similar in that regard. What I saw was at times mesmerizing and at times, stupefying. I don’t know that I got a ton of insight into what makes Taylor tick, but I do know I got to learn a little more about dance and who can possibly say that’s a bad thing?

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful dancing. Clearly reverent.
REASONS TO STAY: Offers little insight into the man. Little or no context. A little bit boring in places. More for people who love dance.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some sensuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since this film was shot, Taylor has gone on to choreograph nine more works as of this writing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :First Position
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: A Walk in the Woods