Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 17, 2008

“Gotta Dance” – Joffrey Ballet, Robert Altman, Gregory Hines & the Power of Poetry In Motion

I’m a big fan of music, and of the human body — especially the more graceful ones. Therefore I’m a fan of modern interpretive dance, despite being a beer-swilling boob in my other life.

I’ve seen Hubbard Street Dance Company several times, enjoyed the growing talents of my friends’ daughters at the annual Dance Center Evanston student recital, and in various other ways come to appreciate a serious dancer’s ability to make absolute magic with just four limbs, a torso and a head. When it’s good, choreographed dance is like watching a living sculpture, with lines and angles and color and a little raised eyebrow all adding up to much more than the sum of their parts. If you’ve never gone, go see some earnest little dance compnay in your neck of the woods this year. See for yourself if you can keep from feeling lifted and electrified by their performance. I dare you.

Sometimes it’s even better when it’s captured well on film, because you have the advantage of seeing a performance from various angles, or from up close compared to sitting in the 3rd or 300th row of a theater. So I’m here today to recommend a few films, which is closer to my own area of expertise anyway. (Dance technique-wise, I wouldn’t know a pas de deux if it kicked me in the face… I just think it looks amazing onstage.)

In a May 2007 blog entitled Gotta Rant! , I complained about not being able to see enough good dancing on tv or in movies anymore (like Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Donald O’Connor’s performances in Singing in the Rain… which you’d better go rent immediately if you’ve never seen it, lest you be accused of being un-American and allowing the terrorists to win).  [BTW: the above-mentioned blog praised the Wall Street Journal owners for not selling to right-wing media hack Rupert Murdoch… then a few months later they went and sold to him anyway. Why doesn’t anybody LISTEN TO ME?!?! ]

Well I am happy to report there is still some hope, as I have just seen The Company, Robert Altman and Neve Campbell’s terrific 2003 film about the modern dance world.

Campbell, an accomplished Canadian dancer even before she gained fame acting on the tv show Party of Five, produced the film and is featured as part of the remarkable ensemble of the Joffrey Ballet. It was mildly controversial a number of years back when this prestigious dance company moved to Chicago from New York, but anyone familiar with the economics of not-for-profit arts organizations got it immediately. Plus, Chicago’s a great town to live in and travel from… competitive yet convenient, without being as “full of itself” as the arts scene in New York.

As a movie, The Company is very Altmanesque: not a single storyline, but more of a “slice of life” portrayal. Lots of improvisation, people talking over each other, almost a documentary feel to it even though it’s scripted. You wait for the big climax, or the other usual film conventions, and they do not come. You’re forced to reflect on the beauty or honesty of small moments, therefore, not unlike what one must do when watching a good dance piece. It’s why Altman is so unlike any other director: his conversations and silences, his motion and stillness, are like a complex dance, left open to the interpretation of the viewer. He seldom tells us what to think (which some people find frustrating in a movie… and I admit it does take getting used to).

Meanwhile, as a document of some classic, historic dance pieces, the movie is incredible. They used lots of cameras to capture actual performances by brilliant Joffrey dancers, lit and planned specifically for the film but using the choreography developed by the original choreographers (some of whom get major cameos, like other stars do in Altman movies like Nashville and The Player). They’re not brilliant as actors in other parts of the movie, but mostly I didn’t care, as Altman’s structure and editing don’t require them to create big, dramatic moments anyway. Another plus: Campbell is not really the “star” of the movie, the whole company is. Her story is only a little more important than the rest. The fact that the DVD smartly has a bonus feature which allows one to watch only the dance sequences is a clear indication that any drama in the film was meant to be secondary to the realism, and the artistry of the dancers doing what they do best.

     Now, a left turn: I’m also nuts about tap-dancing on film. From the wild acrobatics of the Nicholas Brothers in the 1930s and beyond, through Astaire and Rogers, James Cagney, the hot-Hot-HOT Rita Hayworth, and Gene Kelly, right up to Christopher Walken’s weirdly wonderful 2001 music video for hip-hop artist Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, the rhythms and inventiveness of tap are another one of the great joys of life.

The Nicholas Brothers (or at least one) also appeared in the 1989 Gregory Hines showcase Tap, which I found at the back of my video cabinet last month and watched with relish until 1am, like a kid who had just found some buried treasure. However, unlike The Company, Tap is not such a great movie. For some good Hines dancing in better movies, try The Cotton Club, or White Nights (where the bonus is we get to see Mikhail Baryshnikov work his own magic).

On the other hand, the incredibly important service that Hines and his producers did do in Tap was bring together as many of the great old American tap dancers as they could, before all the old guys started kicking the bucket instead of kicking up a storm with their feet. So for example, it was the final feature film appearance of Sammy Davis Jr., and a great thank-you to people like Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, Harold Nicholas, the greats who established tap dancing as a uniquely American art form. A bonus in this film is seeing current tap standard-bearer Savion Glover, at about age ten, swaggering his way through a funny scene where he teaches a bunch of spoiled white kids a thing or two about hoofin’.

So don’t just sit there! Dance your way on over to Blockbuster or the public library, pick up some of these flicks, and add a little hop to your week.

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