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Flash Film Review 2, 1-30: The Real World
Dancers Lives, On Screen, On Stage, and in their Apartments

By Edward Ellison
Copyright 2002 Edward Ellison

NEW YORK -- On Friday January 18, the Dance on Camera Festival 2002 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater offered a scrumptious variety of dance films. The 7 p.m. showing consisted of "Wiped," "Limon: A Life Beyond Words," and "Dancer," a documentary on Nikolaj Hubbe. The 9 p.m. showing offered a salute to Jacob's Pillow's 70th anniversary with "Olympiad" and "La Valse," followed by "Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet." To the average audience member, dancers can often appear as mysterious, untouchable, silent demigods whose expressiveness is only witnessed in the movements of their bodies while on that other worldly place called the stage. So it is of great interest to see their brilliance captured not only as they perform the craft that they have devoted their lives to, but to also catch a glimpse of their lives away from the stage, and to hear their personal opinions and ideas of the art they serve.

A last-minute replacement for Boris Eifman's "Face Off" was the very inspiring "Limon: A Life Beyond Words," a wonderfully insightful documentary directed by Malachi Roth and produced by a long-time member of Limon's company, Ann Vachone. With much footage of the great Limon dancing his own works, including his famous adaptation of Othello, "The Moor's Pavane," the greatness and importance of the Mexican/American choreographer shone brightly through the well-paced documentary. Much of the film's text came from Limon's own unfinished autobiography, in which he says, "All choreography is autobiographical, whether one intends it or not."

In 1928, Limon came to New York as a young art student and there, as fate would have it, discovered his destiny after attending a modern dance performance. After only a few months of study, Limon was invited to join the Humphrey-Weidman company. He electrified audiences with his animal magnetism, sensitivity and power, and his dancing was referred to as that of a "mad stallion!" Worldwide fame followed Limon, as he began his own company in 1945 with Doris Humphrey as Artistic Director/Advisor. Besides being a man blessed with a wealth of choreographic creativity, he was also a true ambassador for the art of dance in every sense. His eloquence and the depth of his understanding of his art is perhaps no more evident than in these Limon words: "I believe that we are never more truly and profoundly human than when we dance."

Nikolaj Hubbe, one of today's most prominent male dancers and a star with New York City Ballet, was the subject of Ulrik Wivel's "Dancer." This rather unorthodox documentary began by showing Hubbe in the casual setting of what appeared to be his NYC apartment. The Danish ballet star spoke intimately to the camera with his hair disheveled, no shirt, and just a necklace of stringed beads, which was in such contrast to the footage of his well-sculpted and refined Apollo in Balanchine's ballet of the same name. I was reminded of my own time as a dancer with San Francisco Ballet, where in 1990 (give or take a couple years) Mr. Hubbe spent a season with us as guest artist. In the film, Peter Martins told of Hubbe's absolute 100% commitment to each and every role he brings to the stage. That quality will forever be etched in my memory of his work in SF, when I had the pleasure of performing the role of Gurn to Nikolaj's James in "La Sylphide." His undying hunger to learn and constant search for deeper knowledge, as well as his tireless work ethic, has allowed Hubbe to develop into one of today's most impressive premiere danseurs. Perhaps the most touching moment of the film came when he received the disappointing phone call from the Royal Danish Ballet, informing him that he in fact did not get the position of artistic director of the company he began his career with. The camera painfully caught his shock, vulnerability, and the self-doubt that followed. Amusing was when asked who he thought would now become A.D., there was only silence, while for what seemed like 30 seconds, Hubbe just stared into the camera making a series of animated faces as if saying "who gives a #@*!"

The final film of the evening was Nils Tavernier's "Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet." It was stunning to see these perfect specimens of classical dance at work, in class, rehearsal, and performance. From the innocent beauty of the young students in the school, to the hopeful apprentices whose life dream is to become a member of the Paris Opera's glorious family, all the way up to the diamond like richness of the seasoned etoiles, you could feel the single-minded mission they all have in common to reach towards the stars. For me, the most special moment was the footage of the great ballerina Elisabeth Platel, completing her last of 24 years with the Opera, with her final performance of Pierre Lacotte's "La Sylphide."

My only complaint about the programs was the evening's lack of theme. For example, it wasn't much of a "tribute" to the illustrious history of Jacob's Pillow to only show the two short excerpts of Ted Shawn's Men Dancers from 1936, and the wonderful Tanaquil LeClercq in Balanchine's "La Valse," which combined only lasted for several minutes. And the four-minute "Wiped" seemed an odd choice to begin the evening. As much as I appreciate the festival's work to bring such films for all us dance lovers, perhaps better planning is in order.

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