Filming about dance: At Lincoln Center, a linchpin of the annual dance calendar unspools

Still from 'Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance' ()
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The Dance on Camera Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a remarkably diverse group of films on view at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (Jan. 27-31).

Much like the contemporary dance and ballet world, the work presented ranges from the sublime to the rather dismal, but that is an honest portrait of a very diverse scene, and besides, it’s part of the fun.

Founded by Susan Braun in 1971, the festival is currently curated by Deirdre Towers and Joanna Ney, who each year selects 40 or so films from some several hundred international entries.

Overall the curatorial vision has been commendable. In 2007 for example, Towers screened Paradjanov’s lush, exotic classic The Color of Pomegranates, about the 18th-century Armenian bard Sayat Nova, although the film has no dance in it at all: It was included simply because the creative process it unveils provides a worthy mirror for that undertaken by dancers and choreographers. It’s taking those kinds of chances that has made this festival a linchpin of the city’s dance scene.

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This year is no different. Perhaps the best example is the informative and touching 2011 documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, which will ultimately screen in 40 theaters across the country and makes it world premiere at the festival. Director Bob Hercules takes the viewer through Joffrey’s early career and his relationship and collaboration with Gerald Arpino. The film also demonstrates the complexity of running one’s own dance troupe. Many of the challenges that dogged the Joffrey after its namesake died of AIDS in 1988—financial woes, Arpino’s takeover as artistic director, a move to Chicago—would have felled a lesser group of working artists. Along the way, one rediscovers Joffrey’s immense accomplishment in making ballet truly American.

Typically, the festival presents a few “point and shoot” documentary or rehearsal films; these are of interest mainly to the dance community and dance historians, but a few of them have much broader appeal, being records of irreproducible art. They offer a visual archive of dance performances, allowing audiences to see how both classic ballets and modern compositions were originally set.

In this vein, the 2011 Balanchine in Paris is notable: Director Dominique Delouche takes us through rehearsals of some early Balanchine ballets at the Paris Opera, focusing on that of the 1947 Palais de Cristal. Alicia Markova, Nina Vyroubova, Violette Verdy, and the fawn-like Hervé Moreau star. The amusingly Gallic former Balanchine muse Ghislaine Thesmar directs most of the dancers in rehearsal. She peppers the film with observations about Mr. B’s technique, his temper and—more comically—his love of the female form and of women in general: “Make believe that you are submissive!” she counsels one dancer, before crooning later on: “The company was like a harem that revolved around its guru, Balanchine.”

On a negative note, it is truly demoralizing to an independent film lover like myself to see just how far Susan Seidelman has fallen with her dreadful new feature film Musical Chairs. This intelligent, quirky director charmed viewers with her 1982 directorial debut Smithereens, set in the East Village punk rock world, and then achieved popular success a few years later with Desperately Seeking Susan, in which she even managed to elicit a bravado acting performance from Madonna. Seidelman seems to have lost all sense of the difference between moving or funny and what can only ever be cliché and kitschy. In Musical Chairs, Armando (E.J. Bonilla), a lovestruck Puerto Rican waiter, decides to train the now wheelchair-bound object of his affections (Leah Pipes) and her friends (also in rehabilitation) to become wheelchair ballroom dance champions. From there, the plot details are so predictable—obstacles overcome, lessons learned, love nearly lost and then found—that one need not go into them. Seidelman has also included a remarkable number of ethnic and sexual stereotypes in one film—some offensive, others rather anodyne. For the record, the wheelchair dancers include a tough muscular street punk who really has a heart of gold and a six-foot-tall pre-op black man who is the life of the party and spews lines to the effect of “Honey, when you’re a six-foot African-American tranny in a wheelchair, you know a thing or two about adversity.” The one bright spot in the film is the handsome and sometimes electrifying Bonilla: With better material to work from, he could be a star some day. As a colleague pointed out after the press screening, even the music in this film is forgettable. Unlike Fame or Godspell, not a single tune remains ringing in one’s ears after the credits mercifully roll.

Some highlights from this year’s festival include Derek Bailey’s 1985 Makarova: in a Class of Her Own; a series of films on the remarkable acrobats known as Pilobolus (including Still Moving: Pilobulus at 40); and 30 Years of Eye on Dance, highlights from Celia Ipolitis’s groundbreaking cable interview show about dance (Alvin Ailey, Agnes de Mille, and Yvonne Rainer are all included in the film).

A few of the festival’s shorter films (which are generally paired with and played prior to the features) deserve mention as well. Jordi Cortes Molina and Damian Muñoz, the two dancers in Clara van Gool’s 2010 Coup de Grace, spend the better part of the film’s twenty-six minutes entangled in an often brutal, sometimes tender tango inside a decaying modernist building somewhere in the midst of a sandy, moor-like landscape. Dressed in formal attire, the two inexplicably stop for a glass of cognac at one point and then begin to dance again. It turns out to be a death dance of sorts—toward the end of the film, Cortes flips around like a dying fish or perhaps someone who he is being electrocuted by invisible cables. Van Gool’s short is a screen adaptation of the dance piece Olelés (which means both “to kill” and “to embrace” in Hungarian), which is itself based on Sandor Marai’s sublime 1945 novel Embers. In the latter, an old aristocrat meets up with his best friend from childhood—a woman and a love triangle lie at the center of the story that unfolds, but the novel is really a disquisition on love, betrayal, and the existential basis underlying friendship itself. Moreover, part of the novel’s power lies in its exquisite ability to show the decline of one world—the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy—and the rise of another—the modern Mitteleuropaïsche bourgeoisie. All of those allusions are absent from Coup de Grace, which, despite its entertainment value and the dancers’ best efforts, has all the elegance of a poorly-choreographed bullfight.

On the other hand, Pontus Lidberg has crafted a delicate, superb short in Labyrinth Within (2010), which keeps the viewer on edge for an entire half hour. Wendy Whelan and Giovanni Bucchieri play a couple experiencing marital problems. The jealous sort, Bucchieri believes that his wife is having an affair with a tall, handsome Swede—delicately played by Lidberg. The scenes of Whelan and Lidberg are electrifying: they dance half-naked in a room next to the married couple’s bedroom, sensually pairing up and moving around, under and atop each other in one of the most sensual scenes in recent film history. Mystery is the key element in the film, as we never find out if Whelan is really having an affair or if Bucchieri is simply imagining it all. Whelan appears a bit stiff at first, but develops into a fine, graceful actress. Everything here is in the eyes—in the way that the three actors read each other with their looks—and in the manner in which their bodies almost magically convey their deepest emotions. It’s a remarkable visual essay on the labyrinth that everyone possesses within. Depending on the situation, it can either hide or release our deepest, most repressed feelings.

The Dance on Camera festival is on at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater from January 27 through January 31. A full schedule is available at http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/dance-on-camera.