When I introduced Wim Wender's Pina in front of the sold-out crowd at Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2011, I thanked artistic director Richard Herskowitz for including dance in his festival, which is one of the few in the country focused on the arts.
As a way of driving my point home, I named every one of them: Frederick Wiseman's La Danse, a insider's view of the Paris Opera Ballet, Black Swan, a controversial ballet film that got everyone talking about Natalie Portman's supposed ballet chops, and the pièce de résistance, Pina, a 3D film so powerful and poignant that it set a new precedent for dance on camera.
Frankly, I worried, how would the Cinema Arts team top this? Simple, by showing four and a half dance films.
Frankly, I worried, how would the Cinema Arts team top this?
Simple, by showing four and a half dance films:
- Andrew Garrison's award winning Trash Dance, an inside look at Allison Orr's The Trash Project, a dance for trash trucks and sanitation workers;
- Ocean, Charles Atlas' film of Merce Cunningham's masterpiece of the same name;
- The legendary Shirley Clarke's very first film, Dance in the Sun, featuring modern dance legend Daniel Nagrin as part of the Where's Shirley lecture-presentation, highlighting several of her groundbreaking films;
- A showing of a Gene Kelly classic, An American in Paris, at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
The half a dance film is Silver Linings Playbook, staring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Directed and written by David O. Russell and choreographed by Mandy Moore, the film follows a pair of down and out folks who transform their lives through a ballroom dance contest. I assure you, Cooper dances in this film, and don't you know it, he's adorable. Silver Linings Playbook screens on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the MFAH.
It's no wonder Garrison made a film about Orr's The Trash Project, she is one of the most captivating and curious dance makers in the state of Texas. Orr, artistic director of Forklift Danceworks in Austin, makes art with trained and untrained movers, and, well, for this project, trash trucks. Whether it's hundreds of two steppers doing their thing on the Capitol steps or a dance with guide dogs, there's no business as usual when it comes to the kinds of movers who interest Orr.
Orr, artistic director of Forklift Danceworks in Austin, makes art with trained and untrained movers, and, well, for this project, trash trucks.
Orr finds beauty where she can find it, and this time it was with two dozen sanitation workers and their trucks on an abandoned airport runway. It wasn't exactly an easy feat. Garrison chronicles Orr's adventure with city sanitation workers on their daily routes, and her process of convincing them to be in this remarkable dance.
"With my dances, it's not so much about the final product. That's not the hard work," says Orr. "Andy followed me for a year. It was crazy what I was asking of these men. He really captured that in a thoughtful and sensitive way. That's the gift of this film. Plus, I have beautiful footage of the dance. It was such a reminder of something Deborah Hay said, which is that everything leading up to a performance is choreography as well."
Both Garrison, Orr and Don Anderson will be attendance when the film screens on Thursday at 11 a.m. at Sundance 6 and Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Sundance 5. I will be moderating the Thursday post show Q & A.
The dance world held its breath for the second time when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed for the last time at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Stunned by Cunningham's death in 2009, fans had two years to mourn as the company traveled the nation in their farewell tour. Then it was over. Not so fast, Charles Atlas' 2011 film of Cunningham's 90-minute magnum opus, Ocean, lets us linger in the great choreographer's wonder a little longer.
Charles Atlas' 2011 film of Cunningham's 90-minute magnum opus, Ocean, lets us linger in the great choreographer's wonder a little longer.
Atlas made 39 Cunningham films over a period of four decades. Ocean chronicles the events leading up to a performance of Ocean, performed in the bottom of the granite Rainbow Quarry in Waite Park, Minnesota. Considered one of his most ambitious works and shot in the round (Cunningham choreographed it in the round), Ocean features a score by David Tudor and Andrew Culver played by a 150-member orchestra from the St. Cloud Symphony and the College of St. Benedict. It's an ambitious film, tracing a historic performance of a seminal work in the American dance canon.
"It has only been with the closure of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company that I have begun to take the full measure of Charles Atlas’ achievement in filming Cunningham’s work. Not only did Charlie introduce Merce to the idea of working with the camera—that is, making dances for the camera rather than for the stage, but he also documented and then made beautiful director’s cuts of Cunningham dances performed on the stage," says Nancy Dalva, Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence.
"Looking back, I believe Atlas knew exactly what he was doing—while sublimating his own creative impulses and lending his technique and craft to the service of the choreography—in documenting some 20 of Merce’s works in the theater."
Ocean screens on Thursday at 1 p.m. at Sundance.
Dance in the Sun
Clarke is best known for her iconic films, The Connection and Ornette: Made in America, both of which will be screened during the festival. Clark got her start in dance, having studied with such legends as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Doris Humphrey. Her early work, Dance in the Sun and Bridges-Go-Round (also screened at a special HCAF event at the Houston Fine Art Fair), reflect a dancer's sensibility.
It's tremendous that HCAF is honoring a great American filmmaker who got her start in the dance world.
It's also tremendous that HCAF is honoring a great American filmmaker who got her start in the dance world. Dance in the Sun and other films by Clark screen at Cinema 16 on Friday at 1 p.m. as part of Where's Shirley.
Dennis Doros and Amy Heller will be attendance to discuss their work with the Project Shirley as well.
An American in Paris
There's so much to love here, it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start with the 15-minute ballet with Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly. "An American in Paris is the crowning achievement of the so-called “Freed unit” at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, an empire within an empire overseen by producer Arthur Freed from approximately 1940-70," says Los Angeles dance critic Debra Levine, who blogs on artsmeme and who recently co-hosted an evening of films choreographed by Jack Cole on Turner Classic Movies.
"Freed assembled an A-team of movie musical talent, primarily Vincente Minnelli who with Gene Kelly co-directed faux Parisian tableaux in Los Angeles to illustrate a majestic Gershwin score."
Trash can dance. Watch the trailer for Trash Dance
A glimpse of Merce Cunningham's Ocean