Saturday, July 15, 2017

Dance Legends On Screen

Prior to becoming one of America's most famous songwriting teams, Rodgers and Hammerstein were facing some stiff artistic challenges. Oscar Hammerstein II had been involved in a series of artistic failures while Richard Rodgers was struggling with the chronic problems his songwriting partner, lyricist Lorenz Hart, had with depression, alcoholism, and erratic behavior. At one point Hammerstein volunteered that if Hart ever became too sick to work, he would be available to work with Rodgers as a lyricist.

After such a situation became painfully real, Rodgers and Hammerstein teamed up and delivered their first hit musical. On March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! opened at the St. James Theatre and revolutionized musical comedy as an art form. Thanks to choreographer Agnes DeMille, dance no longer stood separate and apart from the story line. Instead, Laurie's "dream ballet" did a stunning job of moving the plot forward while communicating Laurie's internal fears to the audience. Two years later, DeMille made a similar contribution to Carousel with Louise's ballet.

The difficulty of capturing the thrill of dance for historic purposes was expressed by Hammerstein in a lyric from 1959's The Sound of Music (a musical that did not include a ballet). The lyrics for "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" include the following thoughts:
"Unpredictable as weather, she's as flighty as a feather
She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl

How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!"
As dance gained more dramatic importance in Broadway musicals, the work of choreographers such as Jerome Robbins (who created "The Small House of Uncle Thomas for 1951's The King and I, "The Dance at the Gym" for 1957's West Side Story, and the bottle dance for 1964's Fiddler on the Roof) and Bob Fosse (who created the dances for 1954's The Pajama Game, 1955's Damn Yankees, 1961's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1962's Little Me, 1966's Sweet Charity, 1972's Pippin, and 1975's Chicago) became as iconic as a musical's songs. In some cases, their estates insisted that future productions reproduce their original choreography.

  • In 1978, a musical revue directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. Dancin' ran for 1,774 performances.
  • In 1989, Jerome Robbins' Broadway (an anthology of the choreographer's work) opened at the Imperial Theatre and ran for 633 performances.
  • 1in 1996, City Center Encores! presented a semi-staged revival of Chicago which had been choreographed "in the style of Bob Fosse" by Ann Reinking. Nearly 21 years after the production transferred to a Broadway theatre, the revival is still running and will soon pass its 8,600-performance mark.
  • Following Fosse's death in 1987, Reinking helped conceive and recreate his choreography for a musical revue appropriately entitled Fosse, which opened in January of 1999 at the Broadhurst and ran for 1,093 performances.

Founded in 1978 by Lee Theodore, the American Dance Machine worked to keep alive dance numbers created by such choreographers as Joe Layton, Jack Cole, Ron Field, Onna White, Michael Kidd, Gower Champion, Peter Gennaro, Michael Bennett, and Tommy Tune. Alas, not every ballet has been faithfully recorded using labanotation. Nor were sophisticated video and film techniques available to record many live performances during the first half of the 20th century.

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On February 29, 1828, a new opera by French composer Daniel Auber, premiered at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra. While The Dumb Girl of Portici was subsequently hailed as the first work in a new genre of French "grand opera," it played a surprising role in the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and also introduced mime and gesture into opera as important elements of the plot (the heroine of Germaine Delavigne's libretto, Fenella, is a deaf-mute who is portrayed by a dancer). Although rarely performed today, Auber's opera was recorded in 1996 with a cast headed by June Anderson, John Aler, and Alfredo Kraus. Most opera lovers know little more than its overture.

In 1916, a silent film version of The Dumb Girl of Portici was made with the famous dancer, Anna Pavlova, in the title role. According to John Hall (who posted the following video on YouTube):
“[Director] Lois Weber did insert some dancing shots of Pavlova against a black background with a black velvet-clad partner to give invisible support and lifts (Keith Money in Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art describes this, and P. W. Manchester in the insert with the Homage to Pavlova LP references these sequences). It's quite possible that the lakeside background is simply a bit of later matting. These sequences were, it seems, not much to do with the plot [but] more of a safeguard by Weber because it was felt that audiences would want to see AP dancing. Apparently, one of these sequences appeared at the end and represented Fenella ascending to Heaven, with the assistance of the invisible partner. P. W. Manchester clearly recalled these sequences [of] Pavlova floating and leaping against a black background.'”

In June, the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a restored print of Lois Weber's 1916 film (with live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius), which gave its 21st-century audience a chance to witness the charismatic Pavlova's undeniable magnetism as a performer.

Anna Pavlova in a scene from 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici

If The Dumb Girl of Portici was the only feature film in which Pavlova (who died on January 23, 1931 at the age of 50) ever appeared, it was primarily for financial reasons. The famed ballerina has been quoted as saying "It is now possible for me to appear before 75% of the world's population in two years' time. What more could any ambitious artist desire?" But, as Margarita Landazuri explains in her program essay:
“By mid-1915, Europe was at war, and Pavlova, deeply in debt, had decided to wait out the conflict in the safety of the United States. She scheduled a North American tour, teaming up with impresario Max Rabinoff’s Boston Opera Company. A combined troupe of about 200 people (60 musicians, three conductors, and 70 chorus members as well as the dance company) set off on a nationwide tour. Pavlova needed to come up with $75,000 for her portion of the partnership, and the production costs for each stop came to $35,000. In order to raise the money, the star agreed to appear in a film to be written and directed by Lois Weber that would earn her 50% of its profits (Dumb Girl was just one of ten films Weber directed in 1915). [They] began filming in July 1915 in Chicago, where Pavlova was appearing at an outdoor theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Next door to the theater were the remnants of an old amusement park that had been erected for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where the film company built a series of outdoor sets. Filming began in the morning, took a break while the star danced in the matinee, then resumed shooting until she had to leave for the evening show.”
Anna Pavlova in a scene from 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici

Anna Pavlova in a scene from 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici
“Pavlova plays Masaniello’s young sister Fenella, described in an intertitle as “the lightest slip of thistledown girlhood,” who is seduced and abandoned by a Spanish aristocrat. Pavlova’s role is an acting one, not a dancing one (Fenella is a peasant, not a sprite). That means there’s nothing wispy or ethereal about her. Pavlova’s performance is earthy and robust. Her beauty, intensity, and modernity are on full display, even when she is not the focus of a scene. Because the character is mute, she expresses herself with movement. Director Lois Weber mostly photographs Pavlova full-length, showing the eloquence of her body, although that directorial choice may have been a fortuitous necessity, since the star, then 34 years old, was far from the “girlhood” of the intertitle.”
Anna Pavlova on the set of 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about The Dumb Girl of Portici. While die-hard cinephiles were much more interested in it because Weber (often hailed as "the most important female director the American film industry has known") had been assigned to shoot a film outside of her usual genre, the action grew increasingly agitated yet strangely tiresome. Known since 1908 as the first American woman to direct a film, Weber had become famous for her work about social issues (1914's The Merchant of Venice, 1915's The Hypocrites, 1916's Shoes and Hop, The Devil's Brew). By contrast, The Dumb Girl of Portici was an old-fashioned historic epic filled with swordfights, cannon, crowds rushing back and forth, and plenty of destruction in the town square.

Thankfully, the screening at the Castro Theatre fulfilled my curiosity about what Pavlova might have been like onstage. Nor was I alone. Upon seeing the restored print of The Dumb Girl of Portici, The New Yorker’s dance critic, Joan Acocella, wrote: “Pavlova was only five feet tall, but here she seems long and tensile. She doesn’t just raise her arms; she stabs the air with them, and splays her fingers like prongs, or tendrils. She is a tendril, too: skinny, bendable, but wild.” Here's the trailer:

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It's hard to believe that Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been spreading its magic fairy dust throughout the dance world with delirious abandon for more than four decades. Founded in 1974 by Peter Anastos, Natch Taylor and Antony Bassae, the all-male drag ballet troupe has been garnering belly laughs from audiences who know next to nothing about ballet as well as from ballet aficionados who have a keen appreciation of their technique and the way the Trocks mock the art form's quaint traditions.

Dancers from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Bobbi Jo Hart's endearing documentary entitled Rebels On Pointe does a lot more than review the company's history and relate how, despite numerous losses, it managed to survive the HIV/AIDS epidemic and continue to thrive. Hart takes viewers behind the scenes to witness the hard work that must be done to prepare for a performance as well as the grind of life on the road. As the filmmaker explains:
“The most challenging aspect of filming with the company was trying to stay out of the way of such a fast-moving and incredibly fine-tuned artistic machine while capturing intimate and meaningful moments that help reveal their humanity, physical determination, and artistic brilliance. They have great fun, but they run a very tight and incredibly professional ship. Every detail is deeply examined and every problem analyzed and solved in advance so the show runs so seamlessly Although they are a comedy ballet company, how they run this company is anything but laissez faire. In one year, they had 150 performances in many different countries with an insane traveling schedule and just a skeleton support staff.”
Members of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo relax backstage

Much of the documentary’s strength comes from learning about the challenges some of the dancers face in their private lives. Ballet master Raffaele Morra (who dances as Lariska Dubchenko and Pepe Dufka) is seen visiting his family in Fossano, Italy, where he tries to spend as much time as possible with a father who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Having joined the company in 2001, Morra has been able to teach, coach dancers, set ballets and choreograph some new works. “I was given the opportunity to teach in my last few years of school and have been preparing my exit strategy for quite a long time. I will definitely continue in the direction of teaching and coaching.”

Raffaele Mora seen as Larissa Dumbchenko performing
The Dying Swan with a tutu filled with moulting feathers

Philip Martin-Neilson (who, as a child, was unable to focus on simple tasks, speak, or make eye contact) was diagnosed with a profound case of autism at the age of three. His mother was warned that he might never be able live independently. But today he has much stronger social skills, enjoys talking with people, and tours the world with the Trocks. “Ballet taught me that if I wanted to progress, I had to do it myself from the inside out,” he states. “I used that mindset to help me with my academic classes, to make it easier for myself to understand.”

Philip Martin-Neilson applying his makeup prior to a performance
(Photo by: Antje Landmann)

With the legalization of same-sex marriage, Hart also follows the maturing relationship between Carlos Reneda from Barcelona (who dances as Maria Paranova and Boris Nowitsky) and Chase Johnsey (who grew up in the “super small, redneck town” of Winter Haven, Florida, and dances as Yaktarina Verbosovich and Roland Daulin) as they prepare to wed.

Carlos Renedo and Chase Johnsey in their apartment
(Photo by: Dance Consortium)

Maria Paranova (Carlos Renedo) and Yakatarina Verbosovich
(Chase Johnsey) in costume (Photo by: TROCKS)

Hart's documentary takes on added poignancy when some of the dancers' mothers visit the company on tour. Not only are they embraced by the alternative family which has nurtured their sons, the women are able to compare notes about when their sons were children. In another scene, Robert Carter gets to visit with his family in South Carolina.

A two-DVD set of videos featuring Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been available online for 15 years (and screened on many PBS television stations). Rebels On Pointe (which was featured in the 2017 Frameline Film Festival and is due to be released in September) is a handsome addition to the legacy of the world's funniest and most iconoclastic ballet company. Bobbi Jo Hart's documentary is a must-see for any ballet fan. Here's the trailer:

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