DANCING ON SCREEN, BIG AND SMALLby Michelle Vellucci, L.J. Sunshine, and Evan Namerow
In like a lion, out like a lamb—but for dance-loving New Yorkers, this March also promises three anticipated film events. First, dance film pioneer Elaine Summers is honored over three evenings at Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church and one afternoon discussion at the New Museum, which will explore her influence on a younger generation of artists. Next, a new film adaptation of Jerome Robbins' 1958 ballet Opus Jazz airs on national television, thanks to the vision of two dancers and support from PBS. Finally, Dancing Across Borders opens at Quad Cinema with an appearance by the filmmaker.
Improvisation with Sun, Moon & Stars:
An Evening of Intermedia Works
Danspace Project, March 18-20
A Conversation with Elaine Summers
New Museum, March 20
For nearly fifty years, Elaine Summers has pioneered the art of “intermedia”—performance fusions of film, moving bodies, music, and sculpture. She turns 85 this year and Danspace Project is celebrating with companion events: a retrospective at St. Marks Church curated by Juliette Mapp and a “conversation” with Summers at the New Museum that promises input from the younger artists she’s inspired. Maybe she’ll reminisce about Fantastic Gardens, her 1964 extravaganza at Judson Church. Written accounts describe a work of grand ambition and scale that unfolded throughout the Sanctuary, sometimes in sequence, sometimes in vignettes layered all at once. Talk about de-centralized performance space! Films—staged absurdist passages in black and white, colorful collages, bits of fellow Judson Dance Theater members in performance—splashed against the walls, columns, balcony, ceiling, freestanding sculptural forms...and dancers. The seating, too, was multi-directional, leaving audience members to choose their sightlines knowing there’d be much they’d fail to see. After intermission, viewers manipulated hand-held mirrors, catching the dancers in beams of light. The light-tossing gestures, Jonas Mekas noted, made it seem as if the audience, too, were dancing.
Summers blurs boundaries by nature and training. After studying visual art and dance, she joined Robert Dunn’s legendary dance composition class. The chance operations she learned from Dunn structured her first film, which appeared at the inaugural Judson Dance Theater concert in 1962. Summers is quick to credit lasting Judson friendships with her ability to conceive and carry out site-specific, interdisciplinary work ever since. Originating and teaching Kinetic Awareness® bodywork has brought other collaborators into her sphere. The late Matt Turney, a Graham Company soloist, was a student, and among the films to be shown at Danspace is Windows in the Kitchen (1976), which captures Turney in elegant movement soliloquy. Excerpts from Crow’s Nest (1981) and other seminal work will be performed live. “The people we work with make wonderful friends,” Summers mused recently. “By the time you’re 85, everything connects.”
Opus Jazz: The Film
PBS Great Performances, March 24
After performing in Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz in 2005, New York City Ballet soloists Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi were inspired to put the 1958 “ballet in sneakers” on film. Two years later, a movement from the piece, entitled “Passage for Two,” was filmed at the High Line just before it was closed for renovation to build the newly elevated park. The brief but beautifully shot excerpt, featuring NYCB dancers Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall, premiered at the company’s 2007 winter gala, and has since been screened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ 2008 Jerome Robbins exhibition and at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series in January of 2008.
Last August, after overcoming planning and fundraising obstacles, Opus Jazz: The Film was acquired by Channel 13/WNET for its 2010 Great Performances: Dance in America series, and filming resumed. More recently, the film was selected for the 2010 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. With a cast of sixteen dancers from NYCB and the streets and buildings of New York as the set, including McCarren Park Pool and a school gymnasium in Carroll Gardens, the film demonstrates how a timeless ballet can become more accessible and engaging to a younger, larger audience.
Opus Jazz: The Film is not just a restaging of Robbins’ piece—it’s a reinvention. Preserving the choreography and Robert Prince’s jazzy music, the film offers new costumes, a new backdrop, and a new medium. While filming at an old Loews theater in Jersey City last September, cast member Adam Hendrickson explained that when working with film directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes, “You want to do the ballet a certain way for them that might not be the same way you do it on stage at NYCB. The choreography hasn’t changed, but the vision is different.” By showing respect to their predecessors while building on this enduring piece with their own ideas and vision, the creative team is making Opus Jazz: The Film their own, and offering a unique contribution to dance and film.
Dancing Across Borders
Quad Cinema, March 26-April 1
In 2000, Sokvannara Sar was a 16-year-old boy studying traditional Khmer dance in his native Cambodia. Seven years later, he was a member of Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Dancing Across Borders follows this journey, celebrating human achievement even as it raises questions about the sacrifices demanded for art. The film screened in this year’s Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center and opens at Quad Cinemas this month, then in select theaters nationally.
Anne Bass is both the filmmaker and the person responsible for Sar’s transformation from Cambodian temple dancer to classical ballet dancer. Bass, a major ballet supporter in New York, recognized Sar’s extraordinary talent when she saw him perform at Preah Khan Temple in 2000.
Unable to forget him, she invited Sar to audition at the School of American Ballet. The audition didn’t go well, but master teacher Olga Kostritzky, then head of the SAB Boys Program, agreed to train Sar herself. After just a few months with her, he made it into the school.
In the film, Sar’s progress is astounding but agonizing. He suffers from debilitating body aches and homesickness. When Kostritzky gives him a correction, he looks ready to throttle her.
In addition to documenting Sar’s years at SAB and then PNB, Borders follows Sar to Cambodia, for a homecoming that’s both triumphant and heartbreaking. After living as an isolated foreigner abroad, he returns home only to find that he no longer belongs there, either.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat Sar’s ambivalence about his fate, but it does skim over some key questions. We never learn much about Bass or how she feels about having altered Sar’s life so dramatically. The film doesn’t delve very deeply into Sar’s feelings, either. Does he truly love ballet or was his experience a kind of indentured servitude?
In a poignant coda to the film, Sar appeared for a Q&A following a Lincoln Center screening. The crowd gasped when he said he’d left PNB. He was trying to figure out what to do next, he said, but now that he’d left he genuinely missed dancing. Maybe he just needed to leave to see if he could.
Michelle Vellucci is a Manhattan-based dance writer and book critic.L.J. Sunshine
L.J. SUNSHINE is a writer living in New York. She has written about dance and Italian cultural events for Oggi Sette.Evan Namerow
Namerow devotes her time to dance writing, environmental activism, and exploring the outdoors.