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Flash Review 1, 11-13: Bon Anniversaire
As Babilee Watches, Cinematheque de la Danse Celebrates 20th with 50 Treasures of Dance on Film

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- With the Eiffel Tower right across the Seine lit up and sending out its searchlight like the Empire State in the old RKO spots, the Cinematheque de la Danse of the Cinematheque Francaise feted itself this past weekend on its 20th anniversary, screening more than 50 dance film treasures from its archives at the Palais de Chaillot. Commencing at 8:30 Saturday evening and concluding nearly nine hours later, the evening, hosted by Cinematheque director Patrick Bensard in the presence of Costa-Gravas, ranged from vintage Josephine Baker footage to a ferocious solo choreographed and performed by William Forsythe. Katherine Dunham, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jerome Robbins, and Merce and Martha were also on view. French dance stars were not to be left out, with the legendary etoile Jean Babilee appearing on screen and in the audience.

As a dance capitol, Paris rivals New York; as a film capitol, it is unparalleled in tout le monde. Combine these twin values, and it was to be expected that an evening of the best dance films from the Cinematheque would not disappoint. But in addition to the instant gratification of watching these treats, the evening also reminded of just how all-encompassing -- in its many cultures and streams -- is dance.

As a single recurring image, Thomas Lovel Balogh's "Solo," featuring Forsythe, was the biggest revelation. It was almost harrowing to watch this dancer-creator, captured in 1995, trying to embody more dance ideas than one body could possibly contain without exploding. The film starts calmly enough, showing just two slippered feet turning in and out. But as the camera zooms up and Forsythe's torso is introduced, and his arms and hands, then head, one seems to be watching a straight-spined ballet dancer waking up to the possibilities of his upper body, before he can even control it. Riveted more or less to one spot, his upper body takes on the manic motion of a fly pinned to flypaper, its arms flailing out of control. You get the feeling that whether his own or another's, the human body will never be able to fully express everything that is running through William Forsythe's mind, which is fiddling in over-drive on a super-human body that has not yet been created, and he will forever be frustrated. If the word genius means anything, it is for defining someone who is working on a plane in his mind to which the world has not yet caught up. As a continually aspiring dance critic, I often feel my vocabulary is insufficient to describe what I am seeing. With Forsythe, I don't know that anyone can truly apprehend where he is working.

Carmen Amaya also seems to come from a different world, channeling duende into a physical ferocity that leaves the viewer both impressed and aghast. It danced her out, this Flamenco. She danced in slacks, too, and that's how we saw her in the uncredited document shown Saturday. After a preamble with Sabicas, Amaya's contemporary and peer on the Flamenco guitar, the film, set in a fancy restaurant with Amaya surrounded by diners and accompanied by an orchestra, introduces her moving measuredly, then with increasing speed whirling and stamping. She holds her spine rigid like we're more used to from male Flamenco dancers, elbows curled, fingers pinched at each side of her torso, though not touching it. And as she turns, her bunned hair unravels.

Like Forsythe and Amaya, Katherine Dunham appears to dance on a narrowly circumscribed circumference; in her case, she's literally confined, having been hauled in by fisherman as a catch. Seeing Dunham on film in her prime is also a rare catch, and just as often we depend on foreign filmmakers for this. Mario Soldati's 1951 "Botta e riposta" is not even listed in most Dunham filmographies I've seen, but it should be, even if what's captured here is more her charismatic presence than a specific aspect of her technique. Oh, and she also sings, in a language that I didn't recognize but that could have been from the Caribbean.

As a pure document of a choreographer at work with dancers, Saturday's highlight was probably a wide angle excerpt of Jerome Robbins setting "In the Night" on the Paris Opera's Monique Loudieres and Manuel Legris. Dominique Delouche's perspective was as if you were sitting in front of the mirror in the studio watching the three at work. It was a delight to see Robbins as he shadowed Loudieres crossing the floor, his torso slanted, his arms extended, seemingly humming to the Chopin. It was also hilarious to hear Robbins, a legendary taskmasker at the New York City Ballet, preceding his corrections to the French dancers with "Pardon."

Now, while the dance fan in me would have been sated with an evening of nothing but morsels like this, the filmgoer in me always craves a feature-length film. Bensard's choice here might have seemed a little odd -- he went to Bollywood, digging up what the program described as the only copy of the classic "Pakeezah" (Pure Heart). Surely, I thought, the Cinematheque's archives must contain more dancey features than a Bollywood musical?

But in fact, fortuitous encounters and incredible plot aside, at the core of Kamal Amrohi's film, starring the legendary Meena Kumari, are two subjects of practical and existential interest to dancers: The foot, and the at times popular confusion of 'dancer' with 'prostitute.' (Even today, a verbally 'daring' post-mod is said to have quipped that the only people who go to see dance are those dating dancers and those who want to date them.)

I won't detail the whole plot because you probably have other things to do today, but it turns on a chance encounter in which the hero (Ashok Kumar or Raj Kumar, the credits are unclear) accidentally enters a train car where the heroine, Kumari's Pakeezah, a dancer, is sleeping -- except for her restless foot, the sole covered in a clear red plastic slipper. As he sits by the furnace and swigs a jug of water, her foot beats against his knee. When she awakes, she finds a note between her toes from 'a stranger who entered your car' only to discover the most beautiful feet in the world. She sleeps with this note under her pillow and during the day wears it in a tiny box earring, until an elephant attack during a river tryst with a prince leads to her drifting up to an island where, miraculously, the same man has set up a tent.

They eventually wind up together, but not before she's left him at the altar once when the taunts of "Prostitute" in her mind impel her to repel him, and before, dancing at his wedding to another and after he flees from her danced and sung entreaties, she smashes a chandelier and spins madly over the shards, her bloody feet turning the floor crimson. (Whether the injury is permanent, and she's sacrificed her career to prove her love, is unclear.)

By the time "Pakeezah" ended, it was already 1:30 Sunday morning, five hours into the marathon, with 3 1/2 hours still to go. I was fading, but I figured, if Babilee could wait five hours to see himself and Xenia Paley in Jean Benoit-Levy's 1952 "Le Poignard," I certainly could. Not that Babilee was complaining; au contraire! Seated in the row behind me, he was chanting Pakeezah's songs, in Hindi.

"Le Poignard" (The Dagger) belongs to the genre of classic 1950s black and white, slightly noirish, television films. A dagger has pierced the door to a small chamber; on one side crouches Paley, girlish with bunned hair. As the door swings open, we see the boyish Babilee hanging from the other side by his clenched fists. After a duet, much of the rest of the film involves Babilee's trying to wrest the dagger from the door -- a task which seems to have mortal stakes for both players. This lets us see him aloft of course, as he backs up to the other side of the room so he can attack the door and the dagger on the run with full force, rushing and scaling it a la Astaire, several times. But it's no good. She sulks, and he retreats to the other side of the door and into the position in which he opened the film, hanging by the dagger.

The evening wasn't perfect. While I appreciate the French obsession with the U.S.'s historic treatment of its black population, and found the footage stirring, I'm not sure what a (fuzzy) film of Billy Holiday, shown from the waist up, was doing on a dance evening, let alone a 9-hour dance evening. And similarly fuzzy footage of an over-the-hill James Brown in a duet with a rap singer didn't reveal whatever power Brown may have had as a dancer in his early career. Not so much the programmer's fault, but a sign of the times, were the mild boos that greeted the American flag-unfurling segment of a clip from Lloyd Bacon's 1933 "Footlight Parade," with James Cagney and corps in Busby Berkeley's choreography. But the treasures by far outweighed the odd choices. Footage of the oh-so-suave, soft-shoeing Berry Brothers, in Norman Z. McLeod's 1941 "Lady Be Good," was a reminder that the history of hoffer brothers extends beyond the Nicholas Brothers. And a restored 1934 "Le Lys," by George Busby capturing Loie Fuller's choreography, was a rare gem.

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