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Flash Review, 5-18: Ghost in the Machine
Producers Stumble, but Hightower's Grace Triumphs

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2001 Sandra Aberkalns

Last June I reported on a Nureyev film festival for The Dance Insider. The three-day festival was well planned, the guest presenters were present, and the Australian Broadcasting Company painstakingly restored the 1972 film "Don Quixote" for re-release. Even though the festival revolved, literally, around a projector, it was run like any live production would be -- professionally.

Flash forward to April 30, 2001. It was at 7 p.m. that evening that the 1991 film "Rosella Hightower," directed by Francois Verret, was to have its U.S. theatrical premiere. The press release for the evening promised, among other things, "This compelling documentary is a result of French choreographer Francois Verret's fascination with this great artist, who founded the Ecole Superieure de Danse de Cannes. Post-screening Q&A with Rosella Hightower and special guests." The film was shown at Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute Alliance Francaise, presented in collaboration with the Cinematheque de la Danse in Paris. Special thanks were offered, in the evening's program notes, to the film department of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the above mentioned Cinematheque, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Boy, it sounds like it should have been a great evening, no? Well, the reality is that quite a few people in the audience were confused by what did and did not happen that evening, and one well-placed dance insider classified the evening as a fiasco. If the people responsible for dropping the ball have any professional pride they would publicly apologize to Madame Hightower and to the audience which attended the screening.

The Alliance Francaise, in this case, was only part of the problem. The reel that was sent for the screening was in such poor condition that it was snap, crackle, and pop from the start. Also, approximately the last quarter of the film (and the entire film was only 48 minutes. long) lost sound, so if you couldn't read the French subtitles you pretty much missed the end of the film. How could someone not check the reel before it was sent over here? How could someone not check the reel once it was here?

At the film's conclusion, in spite of all the problems, the audience wanted to show their respect to one of the greatest ballerinas and teachers of our time, and started to rise out of their seats to give Hightower a standing ovation. However, she seemed upset by what had just transpired and emphatically gestured for everyone to sit down. There was no post screening Q&A; I was to learn the next morning that Violette Verdy was to have been a special guest. Ms. Verdy was not there, at least not that I know of, and obviously there weren't any other "special guests" scheduled. For Heaven's sake, this is New York City! If another engagement prevented Ms. Verdy from attending then there are any number of people that could have been asked in her place. Off the top of my head, I would say that Dance Galaxy's artistic director, Medhi Bahiri, dancer Sophie Giovanola, or Dance Theatre of Harlem's artistic director Arthur Mitchell could have been approached. Bahiri and Giovanola (both attended the screening) were students of Hightower's and went on to careers of considerable renown. Bahiri began his career with Maurice Bejart and would later become an international guest artist, and Giovanola was a principle dancer with the Martha Graham company. Hightower's connection to Mitchell is that in 1988-89, along with Irena Nijinska she staged Bronislava Nijinska's "Rondo Capriccioso" for DTH. This work was specifically choreographed for Hightower by Nijinska.

It was also a disappointing turn-out. Was it a problem with publicity? Were they just not aggressive enough getting the word out about the film component of this festival? Were there just too many other things going on the same evening (ABT's gala was that night)? Whatever the reason, it was a shame. Hightower is 81 years old and her U.S. fans may not have another opportunity to let her know how highly she is esteemed in our dance community.

The one thing that did seem to go without hitch was the reception. It was so heartwarming to see that everyone wanted to speak with Hightower, to pay their respects.

I believe that the film itself will generate heated debate in the years to come. I felt that at 48 minutes, it was not nearly long enough to document the incredible life this woman has led. However, my well-placed dance insider friend disagreed. It was quite long enough, my friend said, as Hightower is still alive, and Verret wanted to show an artist who was still active. I understand what that dance insider was saying. However, whether the person is living, or not, I believe it is the director's responsibility, in the editing process, to not get so involved in demonstrating his fascination with his own artistry that he cuts his muse off at the knees. I asked this friend if there was enough unused footage that another film could be cut, but I didn't get a response.

Also, if a film is being touted as a "documentary," then the least you can do is to clearly identify certain individuals when they appear in the film. Hightower's husband, Jean Robier, is featured in the film and yet if you don't recognize him you would never know it. His presence in the film is so ambiguous it is as though he is playing Dr. Coppelius to Hightower's Swanhilda (if you've seen the film, this analogy will probably make more sense). Another example is that reference is made to the fact that Hightower has a daughter, and yet I don't remember her name being mentioned either. Monet Robier, among other things, has danced with Maurice Bejart, was a ballet mistress at Lyon Opera Ballet, and currently teaches at the school her mother created. Mlle. Robier may argue that the film is not about her and it is not important for everyone to know these things, but I beg to differ. These exclusions are relevant. If Verret really wants us to understand the artist Hightower is today then how can treat two of the most important people in her life so nonchalantly?

Maybe the French have a very different notion from Americans of what a documentary should entail, but my conclusion is that Verret couldn't park his own ego at the door long enough to honor the real subject of this film.

Whether you like the film or not, there is one thing that everyone will agree upon. Hightower remains one of the most unique dancers of our time. When I watched this film I saw an incredibly gifted person who happened to be a ballerina, not a ballerina trying to be a person. Physically she is so well-proportioned, her legs are so straight (great bone structure), and she is SO human, nothing is contrived. The way she moves makes it seem that the muscles just hang off the bone, there is no tension, and yet she is as solid as steel. Nor does there seem to be the constant shifting of weight, of compensation, which are necessary when one muscle or body part fights another for supremacy. Her body has no ego and everything simply works in harmony.

I could go on with what I think about Hightower's dancing. However, what I would rather have you do is to catch this film (if it is ever shown in this country on a theater screen again), or any film footage you can get your hands on, and see for yourself this beautiful woman and amazing artist at work.


Editor's Note: Sandra Aberkalns studied at Rosella Hightower's Ecole Superieure de Danse de Cannes.

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