Montréal’s Festival international du film sur l’art (FIFA) launched its 23rd edition this past March at venues all over town. In addition to profiles of artists, films by artists and documentaries about creative process and art history, FIFA regularly premieres a double handful of dancefilms and docs about dance. This year’s crop was particularly accomplished.
That prickly hybrid that some of us refer to as “dancefilm” weighed in with work by some of the genre’s true heavyweights — Lloyd Newson with “The Cost of Living” (seen in Toronto at the Moving Pictures Festival in 2004), Clara van Gool with the short film “Reimerswall”, and a masterful adaptation of Wim Vandekeybus’ stage work “Blush” directed by the man himself. But I was most impressed by a thirty-minute France/Belgium co-production choreographed and performed by Michèle Noiret and directed by Thierry Knauff.
“Solo” is an elegant black and white study performed partly in silence and partly to a rather bleak piano score by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The work begins with a close-up of a woman’s shuffling feet, the noise she makes on the scratchy black soundstage amplified. The camera moves up as the film progresses, isolating the performer’s hands at waist level; and then from the waist up, the light casts shadows on Noiret’s aging and beautiful face. The dance itself remains static as Noiret whispers and moves her hands about her head in a language reminiscent of some of Édouard Lock’s earlier work. Even though we only rarely see shots of Noiret’s entire body (and when they come they are extreme long shots and very dark), the camera gets us into her dance in an intimate way and consistently delivers the essential choreographic ideas in a thoughtful and rigorous distillation. This is dancefilm at its best: honest, devoid of trickery and genuinely cinematic.
It’s rare to be able to view dance documentaries on a wide variety of subjects at one festival. From dance under the Nazis to vivid profiles of dance artists as diverse as classical dancer Carlos Acosta and Jean-Pierre Perreault, FIFA’s programmers uncovered some gems. Most of them have television broadcast backing of some kind but all of the ones that I saw stood up just fine to theatrical viewing on the big screen.
The most remarkable historical documentary I’ve seen in some time is “Dance Under the Swastika”, written and directed by German filmmaker Annette Von Wangenheim. The film starts and ends with a staging of a modern work by Koni Hanft but in between is sheer historicity. The film charts the gradual elimination of civil rights in general and the rights of dance artists in particular as the Third Reich evolves its policies of exclusion in the 1930s and 1940s. Interviews with those who survived this bleak era — Julia Marcus, Lilian Karina, Gyp Schlicht — punctuate the poignant stories and images of those who did not. Particularly moving is the story of Tatjana Barbakoff who perished in Auschwitz.
At the same time that Jewish dance artists like Barbakoff and their (all too few) supporters were forced into exile or concentration camps, the Nazis’ fascination with dance as a potential tool for propaganda led for a brief time to higher profiles and improved status for artists like Mary Wigman, Rudolf van Laban and other proponents of new German dance. But eventually all dance as artistic expression was stifled in favour of folk routines or morale-boosting chorus lines designed to cheer up the soldiers of an increasingly disastrous war. “Dance Under the Swastika” does a pretty good job of retaining a modicum of balanced objectivity as a documentary, although there is a persistent underlying tone of outrage for those who failed to defend, protect or otherwise show solidarity for their persecuted colleagues. Again and again, Von Wangenheim makes the point that many non-Jewish dance artists of the Nazi era were able to strategically further their careers during the war years, at least until the whole of Germany was debilitated. But as Koni Hanft points out in the final interview of the work, it’s difficult to know what an individual would do faced with similar historical circumstances and pressures. Casting stones after the fact is a risky business indeed.
Several film tributes arrived shortly after the untimely death of Montréal choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault in 2002. But only Tim Southam’s brand new documentary, “Perreault Danseur”, goes straight to heart of his value to Canadian culture by focussing on the articulate and intimate opinions of his company dancers.
A poignant blend of still photographs, excerpts from hand-written notes, drawings and reminiscences from the likes of Mark Shaub, Anne-Bruce Falconer, Marc Boivin and Daniel Soulières (among others), the film describes an uncompromising genius who inspired and was inspired by his beloved company dancers. Their anecdotes about life in the studio (for example, Falconer speaks of beginning to work on a dance with the sets and costumes already fully realized: “he had created a situation where there was no need to talk”, while Shaub speaks with precision about the nature of partnering in a Perreault pas de deux) — reveal aspects of the man and the artist. With Perreault you get the sense that the two were indistinguishable. But the consensus of these colleagues who knew him best is that his most singular feature was his humanism. “He liked our weaknesses almost more than he liked our strengths,” Shaub points out. Southam’s film is definitely a loving homage but by talking exclusively to those on whom he built choreographic masterpieces like “Joe” and “Orrinoque”, he has also arrived at a revealing portrait of the artist as a man whose life was his art.
Getting at the heart of art-making is one goal of Philip Szporer and Marlene Millar’s “Au Fil du Mouvement/Moments in Motion”. The documentary is a seven-part examination of emerging Canadian choreographers and their own thoughts on how they work. Conceptually and aesthetically, the series is all hit and no miss. Each of the seven — Day Helesic (BC), Byron Chief-Moon (Alberta), Malgorzata Nowacka (Toronto), Natasha Bakht (Ottawa), Audrey Lehouillier (Montreal), Hinda Essadiqi (Montreal) and Sarah Stoker (Newfoundland) — gets a technically proficient studio set-up to show off excerpts from their work and enough time to get across the gist of their creation philosophies. Szporer and Millar used a number of cinematographers but they’ve all done great work without upstaging the talent. Inevitably, though, some of these mini-portraits are more compelling than others. Natasha Bakht, classically trained in the Indian classical form bharata natyam and a practicing lawyer, stands out for the poised intelligence with which she discusses both her careers. Bakht seems equally at home stalking the halls of the Supreme Court of Canada in a tailored pantsuit as she does demonstrating her sinuous and smart choreography in the studio. At one point she suggests that her careers are “both important public services” — it’s a take on life in dance that I haven’t often heard expressed with such eloquence. Although she’s worked with Menaka Thakkar, Roger Sinha and Shobana Jeyasingh (dancing with the London-based Jeyasingh’s company for three years), Bakht’s own Dora Mavor Moore Award-nominated “Obiter Dictum” is front and centre in this thoughtful profile. Based on the evidence, Bakht could definitely be voted “most likely to succeed” in this particular batch of emerging talents. But Millar and Szporer’s thesis — that capturing emergence is important — is unassailable. The future will take care of itself.
Look for “Moments in Motion” to air on the Bravo! Network sometime in September 2005.