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Flash Review, 5-18: Ghost in the
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
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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