Archive for the ‘Dance’ Category

Bolshoi Babylon

November 30, 2015

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Bolshoi Babylon, a documentary by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, is about Russia’s famed ballet compay. In 2013, someone threw acid in the face of the company’s director, Sergei Filin. This left Filin blind in one eye. This incident rocked the Russian nation. The Bolshoi is regarded as a symbol of national pride and a cultural treasure. Eventually, one of the dancers is arrested and charged with the crime. At his trial, the dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, says he discussed with his neighbor the possibility of his beating up Filin, but he insists that he never told the man to throw acid in Filin’s face. At the trial, Pavel accuses Filin of favoritism and of corruption.

The documentary follows the events after Filin’s return to the company. At first, Filin is greeted warmly. But then we learn that the dancers have complaints about Filin. They don’t like his casting decisions, and they accuse him of corruption. (We’re never told what exactly this alleged corruption consists of.) Filin’s problems are deepened by the fact that company’s new manager, Vladimir Urin, has a personal grudge against Filin, dating from the time when they were both working for the Stanislavsky Theatre. Urin at first seems an incongruous character to be running a ballet company: he looks and sounds as though he should be running a lumber yard. Yet it becomes clear that he deeply cares about the company and about its dancers.

Despite its gimmicky title, Bolshoi Babylon is actually quite a good film. There are extensive interviews with the dancers. We learn about the stress and disappointments they undergo in this demanding, and highly competitive, art form. One dancer refers to her daily rehearsals as “torture”. One complains of not getting enough work, then later complains of having too much work and not being able to spend time with her son. We also get a sense of the feeling of accomplishment that these dancers also get. This film introduces us to people we feel better for knowing.

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Two Films about Dance: Pina and Crazy Horse

April 19, 2012


A scene from Pina.

I recently saw two documentaries about two very different approaches to dance. I find it very hard to write about dance, since I don’t know very much about it, though I like to watch it. Last year, I saw a production by the Eugene Ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I found it deeply moving, but I don’t know how to explain in words why it affected me so much.

I’ve never been very good at dancing. Many years ago, I was, for a brief time, a theatre major in college. The department head told me that I was required to take a dance class, so I would “know how to use my body”. So I signed up for a ballet course. There were 25 people in the class, and I was the only male, besides the teacher and the piano player. I learned how to pliĆ© and stretch. I got to be pretty good at it, or so I thought. One day the teacher made us do this exercise, in which one by one each of us would run across the room and jump in the air. After I finished my turn, the woman behind me started to follow, but the teacher immediately stopped her, saying that she wasn’t moving in time to the music. She protested that she was following my moves.

“Oh, don’t pay any attention to Austin,” he said casually. “He follows his own beat.”

I dropped the class.

The people we meet in Pina clearly had happier experiences with their first dance classes than I did. This documentary by Wim Wenders is about Pina Bausch, who was the choreographer for the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Bausch died while this film was being made, so it is really a memorial to her. The film starts with an amazing performance of The Rite of Spring. Later, we see members of the troupe dancing in the streets of Wuppertal, as well as on the city’s elevated railway, the Schwebebahn. (Now, why can’t they build something like that in LA?) There are also interviews with the dancers, who come from all over the world. They all talk about how Bausch inspired them. They describe a woman who was patient and understanding with them. This is in striking contrast to the popular notion of dancing masters as barking autocrats. (An idea that is vulgarly portrayed in the critically acclaimed potboiler, Black Swan.)

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Crazy Horse, a documentary by the legendary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, is about the famous club in Paris that features nude dancing. This place is not like your ordinary strip club, however. The people who work here all take what they do very seriously. They regard their work as art, just like the dancers at the Tanztheater Wuppertal. (The artistic director says that the government should require everyone in France to visit the club.) As with his previous films, Wiseman has no narration. Instead, his camera follows people around as they carry out their business, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions from what they see. Of the various people we meet in this film, the one I found the most affecting was the head costume designer. She agonizes over every detail of the skimpy outfits the dancers wear. Crazy Horse seems to take us into another world, where things like wigs and g-strings acquire enormous importance.

This is another film I highly recommend seeing.