Finding the choreographic truth in dance on screen — generally devoid of text, narrative or other useful linguistic signposts — is sometimes a tricky business. The creators of a handful of important dancefilm projects, just out or soon to be broadcast, manage to frame their truths to greater or lesser degrees. Not surprisingly, the most successful of them have made works that shine with an undeniable glow of authenticity. It's not really something that's explainable but you know it when you see it. Oddly too, with one mighty exception, all of these works have an explicit relationship with stories and words.
"Old Country", a twenty-seven-minute film co-directed by Mark Adam and Allen Kaeja, finds its truths in using dance to explore a story of personal and familial tragedy. This short is an adaptation of the stage work of the same name, choreographed by Allen Kaeja and performed by Kaeja d'Dance. Kaeja was inspired to make his stage work and now his film by his father's experiences during World War II. Munniac Nossal lost his entire family — including his wife and child — in the concentration camps at Auschwitz. Nossal's loss has clearly haunted generations of the new family he built as "Old Country" makes clear in its intertwining of scenes from 1939 and from a modern day Rosh Hashanah family celebration. The rituals, performed then and now, create a dramatic framework for the story; when the real dance begins, it's an expression of separation, loss or torment. The dancers shine in these grim moments, most especially Karen Kaeja (she plays Nossal's wife) who has several heartbreaking solos. The gorgeous camerawork and art direction aside, "Old Country" succeeds as cinema largely because it has a story to tell and it's told with honesty and tremendous clarity, both in the movement and in the filmmaking.
Another dancefilm made for television that relies on stories and words for at least some of its power is "From Time To Time", a new forty-seven-minute production by Moze Mossanen (who previously made the full-length "Rings of Saturn" and "Year of the Lion", among many others). Here the textual hook is the songbook of Joni Mitchell, whose lyrics form a backdrop to the emotional map of one woman's life as she matures from a kid in the sixties through to the dawn of a new millennium. The action starts off in a school gym where self-conscious teenagers cavort to the strains of "Raised on Robbery", and ends with the christening of the woman's newborn to the sappy strains of "Both Sides Now". Mitchell's songs are certainly evocative of the eras under discussion but the dancers don't seem to be listening to them. There's a fundamental disconnect here between the score and Ginette Laurin's choreography and I can't decide if I find that interesting or irritating. The movement vocabulary is energetic though rather banal and the performances only competent (dance just doesn't seem to be the point here) in what feels at times to be a slyly vicious and weirdly retro indictment of North American culture.
Documentary should be all about truth but a new documentary called "Mocean Dance" about Nova Scotia's Mocean Dance Company is revealing only in isolated moments. The half-hour work by Charlie Cahill showcases this young female contemporary dance company as it works with three choreographers on commissioned dances that are then presented for the camera. We see the company hard at work in the studio; we hear from the choreographers, all of whom have intelligent things to say about creation; and then we see portions of the finished dances filmed in the studio. Most entertaining is Howard Richard's odd riff on passive aggression that finally dissolves into outright pushing and shoving. The brawl segues into a section where water from fish tanks turns the stage into a giant splash pad for the dancers. Andrea Leigh-Smith and the Kaejas also contribute what looks to be sound material. This is all fine but the film doesn't seem sure of what it wants to be — a straight up doc, an educational tool, a performance film or a promo ad for the company or for Tourism Nova Scotia. It's admirable for a film to multi-task, especially in these interdisciplinary times, but the sum of these parts is a bit muddy.
"Shadow Pleasures", a new hour-long film by Veronica Tennant strives for new heights in artistic multi-tasking. And here the achievements are awe-inspiring in their beauty and complexity. Tennant wraps wildly diverse choreographies with the stunning prose and poetry of Michael Ondaatje who is the project's inspiration. Excerpts from some of Ondaatje's best-loved writing ("Skin of a Lion", "Running In the Family", "Anil's Ghost" and the poems "The Nine Sentiments" and "The Cinnamon Peeler") are interpreted in movement, each with a different choreographic and visual treatment and with Ondaatje himself providing the smooth as melted chocolate voice-over. Most powerful are the "Cato and Alice" sections choreographed by Andrea Nann and performed by her with Gerald Michaud. Absolutely charged with emotion, Nann's dances are imaginatively lit and shot by cinematographer Paul Toltan and benefit from the equally imaginative music compositions of John Gzowski. It's a painfully perfect combination in that it sets a standard to which most of the other sections cannot rise. The exceptions are Nann's solo "Meditation #5 on Loss and Desire", which is paired with a dramatic excerpt from "Anil's Ghost" performed by Suleka Matthews and Tennant's own duet for Gail Skrela and Sean Ling set to the deliriously sexy poem "The Cinnamon Peeler". Simple, pure and infused with a genuine emotional content, the section provokes and evokes both through the images before your eyes and by an even more lush sensual landscape suggested by Ondaatje's words. Like a good novel, this work tries its best to satisfy all the senses.
No words drive "Amelia", adapted from the stage version for La La La Human Steps by the wizard himself, Édouard Lock. This is non-stop movement and pure filmmaking sustained over a full hour. Cerebral but determinedly mute, of all the dancefilms described here "Amelia" best utilizes the tools of cinema to express ideas about dance. Employing a set completely covered in thin birch or maple panels, Lock covers all the angles of his dance, using shadow, perspective and some rather strenuous camerawork. Lock's cast (which includes the incomparable Andrea Boardman) is scrutinized in extreme close-up, with looming overhead shots and everything in between. The movement for the most part is fast and furious, the women, and one of the men, en pointe. Lock and his veteran cinematographer André Turpin use the camera to create breathing spaces (something he did not provide in the live version of "Amelia") with recurring tableaux and lingering tight close-ups. Lock utilizes Turpin's bag of cinematic tricks to the max — hi speed work, tracking shots (made with a wheelchair apparently), motion control, stop-action techniques — without losing control of the medium. The result is an aggressive, at times tender, and always beautiful exploration of the sub-currents of desire and longing. Though not exactly prolific in his dance creations, one can only hope that Lock will find the time to also make more films.
"Amelia" premiered on the CBC in November 2003. "Mocean Dance" premiered on Bravo! Network in February 2004. "From Time To Time" will receive its broadcast premiere on the CBC on February 26th, 2004 at 7pm and will be repeated on Bravo! March 3rd at 7:30 pm. On March 11th, 2004 "Shadow Pleasures" will premiere on the CBC. Four shorts from "Shadow Pleasures" will be shown on Bravo! on March 17th, 2004 and "Old Country" will air on CBC on March 18th.