Category Archives: Movies

Dance and ‘Never Stand Still’

Sometimes comfort and pillows aren’t about laying around and staring at the TV or the ceiling. At Jacob’s Pillow, it’s about literal and mental leaps of faith and setting new ideas into motion because, the narrator Bill T. Jones, intones dance can “never stand still.” “Never Stand Still” is the name of Ron Honsa’s documentary about Jacob’s Pillow Dance because dance isn’t about standing still and The Pillow pushes to explore dance as an ever-changing medium.

“Never Stand Still” opens this Friday, 6 July 2012 for a one-week engagement at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. If you love dance, make a dash and be inspired.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance is located in Becket, Massachusetts. Once an abandoned farmhouse, it’s the location of the oldest summer dance festival in the United  States and in 2003 was listed as a National Historic Landmark District.

Called The Pillow, the first settlers came in 1790 and the route that zigzagged up the hill looked like a ladder to the locals who made a biblical connection, and there was a large stone that resembled a pillow. Thus the name.

Modern dance pioneer, Ted Shawn bought the place in 1931 when his partnership and marriage to Ruth St. Denis had gotten rocky. Their Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts was based in far-off Los Angeles. Founded in 1915, that school had students like Martha Graham and silent movie star Louise Brooks. Yet the Great Depression and a clash of two creative egos, brought Denishawn to an end in 1929.

Shawn sought refuge in Massachusetts and the company of men. His Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers sought to redefine dance in terms of masculine movement. This documentary has plenty of talking heads who begin speaking to the camera but end up narrating movements–dance rehearsals or performances. From old black and white photos, to grainy archival films to more modern clips, we see a virtual who’s who of modern dance and not just in America.

Those who were there at the beginning such as Merce Cunningham and Barton Mumaw reminisce. Alvin Ailey was mentored here and debuted his “Revelations.” (We don’t see Ailey, but we do see someone perform his piece) Mark Morris talks about his time there as does Bill Irwin who brought a bit of vaudeville to The Pillow stage. We see Irwin perform and consider what does a dancer do when he gets old, and more contemporary pieces from younger dancers such as the Lombard Twins. The Pillow was a comfortable, safe place to meet, experiment and make dance.

Of course, it wasn’t only men who danced at The Pillow. St. Denis and Graham performed there the documentary notes. There’s an extended passage devoted to George Balanchine’s muse Suzanne Farrell who protests that there is freedom of expression in ballet. If you’ve watch the CW’s “Breaking Pointe” you’ll realize that personality and personal expression is important for someone who wants to be a principal dancer.  When we think of classical dance, we also have to consider other countries. Shawn and Denishawn had their “Oriental” dances, but here in the documentary we see Asian dance performed by someone who was trained in that tradition: Shantala Shivalingappa.

Some international dance troupes made their U.S. debuts at The Pillow: The Royal Danish Ballet, the New Zealand male-centric Black Grace and the Hofesh Shechter Company. Modern dance companies also formed here such as Bad Boys of Dance or Chunky Moves.

Yet Honsa’s documentary is more a celebration of a successful movement. He doesn’t dwell on the hardships and financial problems that The Pillow faced as the documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of Dance” did. It almost seems as if Shawn did things well enough that under his leadership The Pillow and his company did not suffer and this wasn’t true, particularly during World War II.  Shawn, however, did remain in charge, teaching classes until a few months before his death in 1972 at age 80.

This history of The Pillow, “Never Stand Still,” celebrates in dance, what The Pillow was and is. In light of its prior history as a waystation in the Underground Railroad, The Pillow resonates as a haven for those on the margins of culture.  Dancers talk about what The Pillow meant historically and what it meant to them. Some former students have come back as teachers, suggesting a tradition of sharing that is likely to continue. The diversity of disciplines, cultures and training fuses to create an energizing impulse that can be felt internationally.

The movie just opened in Los Angeles this Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall, but is playing across the country. The festival itself is in full swing and if you’re lucky enough to be in the area, check it out. There seem to be plenty of opportunities to see what happens when a bunch of dancers get together and assemble a new program or a new company or a new collaboration. Summer really is the time to get out and dance and this documentary comes in time to inspire you to “Never Stand Still.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ : ‘Survival of the Fittest’ premiere episode heartbreaking

There’s heartbreak in The CW’s new summer program, “Breaking Pointe,” a show that gives us access behind the curtains to the Salt Lake City Ballet Company, Ballet West.  There are no villains as you’ll see in the reality show “Survivor” and you as the audience do not influence who stays and who goes as in other dance reality shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance.” “Breaking Pointe” is about the real world and shot in the style of a documentary.

William F. Christensen (1902-2001) was one of three brothers–the others were Harold and Lew. Born and raised in Brigham City, Utah, as you might expect, they were all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or, as most people know them, the Mormon church.

The three brothers founded the San Francisco Ballet i n1933 as the San Francisco Opera Ballet. The company is actually based in the War Memorial Opera House and currently under the direction of Helgi Tomasson. William staged the first full American production of “Swan Lake” in 1940 and also choreographed and presented the first full production of “The Nutcracker” in 1944.  With the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet is considered one of the three major classical ballet companies in America and is among the world’s leading companies.

In the summer of 1948, William (or Willam as he later preferred to be called) went to the University of Utah to choreograph a production. He eventually helped create a ballet department–the first at an accredited university in 1951. He also founded the Utah Civic Ballet in 1963 and served as its first artistic director.

The Federation of Rocky Mountain States chose the company to represent the western U.S. in 1968 and the company responded by changing its name to Ballet West.  Willam Christensen retired in 1978 to be replaced by Bruce Marks who had been co-artistic director since 1975. John Hart was the third artistic director and he was succeeded by Jonas Kage from 1997 to 2006. The current director is Adam Sklute.

Sklute danced on the edge. He was an associate artistic director for the famed Joffrey Ballet where he had also been a dance in the 1980s. He appears in the recent documentary on that company, “The Joffrey Ballet: Mavericks of Dance,” and this best explains his willingness to extend is public outreach to a reality TV series.

Sklute is from Berkeley, California, a place that is practically an incubator for radical idealism. According to his official biography, he only began dancing at age 16.  He must have been a natural because after only two years of formal training, he was invited to join the Joffrey II Dancers, the Joffrey apprentice company, and two years later he was dancing in the company. Two is a lucky number for Sklute because he was one of the last two artists personally chosen by Robert Joffrey.  He also appeared before the cameras in Robert Altman’s 2003 movie “The Company.”

What “Breaking Pointe” intends to emphasize is that ballet is about obsession and the kind of dedication one usually only associates with crazy people and athletes. These men and women are no fluffy flowers who float passively with the wind.  They are people who exist under the constant threat of time and rivalry.

The rough cut version of the first episode, introduces us to some members of the company during the period when they’ll learn who stays and who will go. For most of the dancers, their contract with the company is year-to-year.

The only person we meet with a sense of security is the 32-year-old principal artist Christian Bennett. She came to the company at 19 and worked her way through the ranks. She has a 2-year agreement. When she is rehearsing, the others stay quiet and watch out of respect. But she feels “a little breath at the back of my neck,” she tells the camera while watching the 19-year-old Beckanne Sisk. Sisk.

Soloist Ronnie Underwood is 30 and wants to be promoted. There are two brothers: demi-soloist Rex Tilton who is 32 and Ronald Tilton who is 28. They come from a dance family of seven brothers and sisters, five of whom still dance. Rex is sweet on demi-soloist Allison DeBona. Ronald is a couple with the 23-year-old Katie.

The company has a hierarchy with the principal artists at the top (four positions), the soloists, demi-soloists, artists and Ballet West II members. Because the contracts are year-to-year, the dancers are keenly aware that they will likely not be together for long.

This episode is called “Survival of the Fittest” because this is the week when the contracts come out and the members will learn who stays, who goes and who has been promoted. Sklute wants to keep a company moving to keep it alive and he mixes up the hierarchy. The hierarchy also strains relationships between the dancers as competitors as well as bringing pressure to the possible romantic relationships.

Yet the dancers also have fun, we see them going out and dancing in a bar, celebrating their renewed contracts or trying to consider what happens next. The tension is in the dancers who won’t return and the problematic romantic relationships within the company.

Ballet West permitted the filmmakers to come in for six weeks. From the beginning, we know that getting to be a member is hard, but according to the director Sklute “staying here is even harder.” That sentiment is echoed in the Bennett’s comments.

While movies often give us a happy, even improbably endings (such as “Flash Dance”) and the most recent ballet documentary “First Position” ends on a hopeful note, this first episode sets the tone of hardship and heartbreak. There are no bad guys or good guys. There are just tough decisions for a career that will end in retirement when your average person is in their prime earning years.

This is perhaps reality TV at its best. This is about real life, real problems and real people. If they are performing for the cameras, it doesn’t come off as insincere or over-the-top hamming it up. There’s a sincerity and earnestness in the people we see as they are dancing or addressing the camera, breaking the fourth wall. Yet, because there are no defined types, it can be hard, to keep track of the people and their story lines.

If you or your child is considering a career as a dancers, this reality series will blow away the romantic stardust and bring a heavy does of reality.

Breaking Pointe” premieres tonight, 31 May 2012 on The CW at 8 p.m. Pacific time and 7 p.m. Central.

‘First Position’ shows hope and hardship of young dancers

Dance should be about joy, but for the dancer it is also about obsession and pushing one’s body to the limits. Dancers are athletes and yet we rarely look at them as such. The documentary, “First Position,” shows just how far young people push themselves and are pushed to succeed as they compete at the Youth America Grand Prix. Unlike the LA Times dance critic, whom I’m not even sure really dances, I can’t so easily dismiss this affectionate look at young people on the brink of success in a fickle world.

Filmed in 2010, Bess Kargman’s 90-minute documentary follows three boys (Aran Bell, Jules Jarvis Fogarty and Joan Sebastian Zamora) and four girls (Gaya Bommer Yemini, Michaela DePrince, Miko Fogarty and Rebecca Houseknecht) as they audition, practice and audition again, all in hopes of a scholarship or possible job in a tight market where ballet companies are letting dancers go and the career of a dancers is very short. What will the families and the dancers sacrifice for their dreams?

The title, “First Position,” refers both to the first thing you learn in ballet (five positions for both the arms and feet) and winning. The competition is a misnomer because although it is a competition for youth from nine to 18, the competitors are not just from America.  That’s somewhat fitting. Two former Bolshoi Ballet dancers began Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) in 1999 as a non-profit organization to help young dancers become professionals by giving them educational opportunities, contract offers from dance companies, scholarships to dance schools, workshops with master teachers and performance opportunities.

Now, YAGP awards over $2 million in scholarships. Over 25,000 dancers compete now and the alums dance for 50 companies including the Paris Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.

This year’s finalists performed with stars of the world’s leading dance companies in “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” at the YAGP closing night gala at the Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater on 27 April 2012.

The finalists aren’t like ordinary people. They are children and young adults who have an unusually high sense of balance and bodies blessed with hyper-elasticity. Like all athletes, they must also have unusually focused dedication but they also must be physically pleasing to the eye. Dancing is a sport of aesthetics.

Like many sports, ballet technique changes the body and makes unusual demands. It seems a bit snarky for the L.A. Times dance critic Lewis Segal to write that “There’s valid evidence to validate Isadora Duncan’s belief that ballet techniqe deforms women’s bodies.”  Segal neglects to mention that quip was from a 1903 speech Duncan made in Berlin called “The Dance of the Future.”  For her “the dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise.”

The San Francisco-born Duncan is considered one of the creators of modern dance and we’re not talking about hip hop, TURFing or krump. Contrary to Duncan’s views, modern dance–not her version, but the street-born body lingo of hip hop and krump has a tendency to embrace commercialism over religion. You rarely see a ballet dancer heavily covered with the kind of bling rappers favor.

Then, again, Duncan also stated that “The real American type can never be a ballet dancer: The legs are too long, the body too supple and the spirit too free for this school of affected grace and toe walking.” That seems to contradict everything YGAP is about.

Duncan died for fashion in 1927 having been strangled when her long, flowing scarf got caught in the wheels of a car.  She was 50. and had become a Soviet citizen and was then known more for her public drunkenness, love life and sponging off of friends while incurring debt. Hardly the kind of person one would seek words of wisdom from. Sorry Segal.

Duncan was wrong in so many ways. Ballet has survived and so has modern dance and Duncan’s version of modern dance might seem as old and quaint to the youngsters of today as the concept of typewriters and telephone booths.  The parents of these hopeful dancers we meet in “First Position” probably would steer their children clear of Duncan’s excesses. The parents and their dancing progeny probably don’t care about Duncan. Yet one wonders if dancers really care what Lewis Segal has to say about dance and this movie “First Position” because it seems a bit snarly, and embittered, everything Kargman’s movie is not. Kargman’s documentary has an atmosphere of scintillating possibilities just beyond one’s reach.

Yes, Kargman looks at the deformed feet of the dancers, male and female, but like Duncan, Segal seems only concerned with the girls and women. Women weren’t meant to dance on their toes, but slapping one’s feet down on hard wood floors isn’t good for anyone. That’s a different type of repetitive motion injury.

Specialization in physical activities also results in specific physical injuries. Consider how deformed the hands of gymnast Kurt Thomas were after dedicating himself to his Olympic dream.  And the hands and feet of female and male flamenco dancers. What about the worrisome head injuries from football? Consider that plenty of women suffer from hammer toes and bunions from wearing ill-fitting shoes for mere fashion.

Are modern dancers less deformed? Less flexible? What will happen to the hip hop dancers who are modern day contortionists with their flexing and bone breaking? While perhaps there does need to be a study relating athletes and injuries, there’s something a little snide about Lewis’ remark that “it’s easy to look at Michaela DePrince, Rebecca Houseknecht and Miko Fogarty in their tutus and imagine them dancing in a professional “Swan Lake.” But it’s just as easy to imagine them a few years after that lining up for hip replacements.”

Perhaps it’s only part cause and effect because to be a dancer, one has to begin with hips joints that are shallower than normal to afford the range of movement. For some people the split leg position is natural. For most people it is not.

Yet in a small study in the Netherlands, no significant difference was found in degeneration of the hip joints between professional female dancers and a matched control. Naomi Rabinowitz, webmaster of dancerhips.com, comments that while “hip replacement is pretty common among dancers–and yes, ballet in particularly is very stressful to the hip joints.  In addition, many dancers start off with some mild hip dysplasia (unbeknownst to them) because it affords a big range of motion in the legs favored in today’s choreography. Over years that anatomical advantage is more likely to become degenerated.”

Watching the seven dancers stretch most of you will have no doubt–these people have bodies that aren’t like yours. When I see them, I wish I had started earlier and been less lazy. Imagine how flexible I could be now? For some of us, doing the splits is natural.

Enough about the LA Times, though. Kargman has chosen a diverse set of dancer athletes. Aran Bell is an Army brat, now with his parents in Italy. He plays on a pogo stick and skateboard. Yet he also uses devices that look like medieval instruments of torture to bend his feet toward a more pleasing high arch.

In class, amongst young adults, this 11-year-old kid finds someone close to his age, Israeli Gaya Bommer Yemini (11), and they become best buds. Michaela Deprince at age 14 has lived a life more filled with tragedy than most Americans twice her age. Orphaned during a war in Sierra Leone, forced to watch a teacher being physically mutilated, she was adopted by a nice American couple who bring warmth, humility and love to the term “stage parents.”

At the other end of society is the princess in pink, Rebecca Houseknechy, 17, who is a daughter of a well-to-do family with a new car and a Tiffany bracelet to lighten her heart as she competes. She has the talent and the looks, but does she have the fire?

For now, the 12-year-old Miko Fogarty seems to have the talent, looks and drive unlike her 10-year-old brother Jules Jarvis Fogarty who seems to be playing more tag-along than pursuing his own dreams. Their Japanese mother, Satoko, seems to be intensely driven to make sure her daughter succeeds, putting dance before school (the children are both home-schooled). Yet compared to the other competitors, Miko seems troubling thin, her arms are mere hangers for connective tissue and when she’s standing still you can see the top most ribs on Miko. When she flexes her back, pushing her rib cage forward, she’s a smiling skeleton floating across the floor.

For Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, he’s hoping to do well enough to get a scholarship to study with a major company. His dream would be to dance with the Royal Ballet. There he’d make more in one month than the average person would make in a year from his home in Cali, Colombia. The pressure he has on his young shoulders is illustrated in the phone calls he received from his parents.

LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan (in his 4 May 2012 review) compares Kargman’s film to the movie about spelling bees, “Spellbound,” and the movie about ballroom dancing children competing, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” calling kids competing a sub-genre of documentaries.   In his 13 April 2012 review of “First Position,” Lewis Segal compared the documentary to the fictional movie “Black Swan” and to “Center Stage.”

Segal mentions Sergei Polunin who left the Royal Ballet because of “the isolation imposed by the nonstop classes and rehearsals required.” Segal compares that to the isolation of Zamora from his family. That’s apples and oranges or star versus chorus.

Ukrainian Polunin is 22 and was the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal dancer at age 19 before he quit, according to an article in the Guardian. Like Zamora, he was encouraged by his parents to dance as a possible way to a better future. He joined the British Royal Ballet in 2003 when he was 13 under the sponsorship of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Polunin did receive an award at the YAGP in 2006 and in 2007 was named the Young British Dancer of the year. Yet it is only through the training and the prestigious awards that the possibility of becoming a member of a smaller group is possible.

Kargman’s documentary is about children learning a craft and hoping to find financial and institutional means of furthering their study. It’s a long way from becoming a master of technique to becoming the master who creates and innovates.

Kargman’s is about the journey up of young dancers waiting to be molded and not the journey after, when they must decide to be disciples or creators on their own. There’s a beauty in their dedication, in their seriousness and honesty and, of course, in their dancing.

The full story isn’t told by Kargman as the Washington Post noted. One dancer does quit, having received a contract. If you want to know who, follow this link to the Washington Post review.

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DWTS 14: Gregory Hines and ‘White Nights’

You might be asking who was Gregory Hines after both Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli compared Jaleel White to Hines after White and his partner Kym Johnson performed a smooth foxtrot.

I met Hines backstage when I saw him perform “Jelly’s Last Jam” and I saw him give a talk at the Pasadena Playhouse. I wish I had brought a camera, but I remember how he gave us some quick steps down the stage and then relaxed into his chair. He was humble. He was great. If only someone had found him a home on TV.

Gregory Oliver Hines was born in NYC on Valentine’s Day in 1946, but he died in Los Angeles (9 August 2003) when he was just 57. According to Wikipedia, he was the lead singer in a rock band called Severance in Venice, CA. He sang with Luther Vandross for a number one hit, “There’s Nothing Better Than Love.”

Before that, he was on Broadway, first in 1954 with his brother. In 1979, he earned a Tony nomination for “Eubie!” in 1979 and then again in “Comin’ Uptown” in 1980 and “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981. He finally won a Tony for “Jelly’s Last Jam” in 1992.

“White Nights” was a dance lovers’ dream: the odd pairing of Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The story of this 1985 movie was a Soviet ballet dancer has a forced landing in Siberia. He had defected years before and now the Soviets attempt to detain him. The KGB officer brings along a tap dancer who defected from the U.S. to the Soviet Union into the mix. The tap dancer played by Hines, is to keep the ballet dancer company. And the tap dancer and his wife attempt to help the ballet dancer escape.

Hines was also in:

In 1997, Hines starred in “The Gregory Hines Show” on CBS which lasted only one season with 15 episodes aired (out of 22). In 2000, Hines was a recurring character in the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” and played one of Grace’s love interests during season 3.

Alex Wong of SYTYCD in a ballet movie!

Another screening of ‘Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance’

If you missed the special events surrounding “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” then don’t miss the additional screening tomorrow, Saturday, 4 February 2012, at several Laemmle Theaters at 11 a.m.

This movie is a loving tribute to the two men who founded the Joffrey Ballet after meeting in Seattle. Going to NYC, they taught classes and then traveled everywhere giving one-night performances. As a company, they were able to rack up many firsts, including the first ballet company to perform in the White House and the first dance company to make the cover of Time magazine.

For our review, visit Examiner.com.

For our interview with Sasha Anawalt, dance critic and writer of the book the movie was based upon, visit Examiner.com.

Sasha Anawalt on ‘Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance’

Imagine after sweating over a labor of love and finally publishing a book and then, years later, finding like minded people who want to take your topic into a new medium. With the release of director Bob Hercules’ “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, Sasha Anawalt’s book on Joffrey will be discovered by a new audience.

The movie is based on Sasha Anawalt’s 1996 book, “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company.” The book is being re-issued on Friday (27 January 2012)  as an e-book. Anawalt is currently the director of the University of Southern California Annenberg Arts Journalism Programs and is a former dance critic.

The movie premieres this Friday, 27 January 2012,  at the Lincoln Center in NYC as part of the opening night of the Dance on Camera Festival. For dance fans, this is a movie well-worth watching, if only to affirm that America has made contributions to ballet.

On Saturday, 28 January 2012, a live simulcast of the second screening will be brought to cinemas all over the U.S. through Emerging Pictures network. People will be able to use Twitter to send questions (using #joffreymovie) to the post-screening panel. For more information on screenings, visit the movie’s website.

Anawalt has had a few crazy months. She is one of the dance critics in the documentary (along with New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff) and will be part of the post-screening panel discussion.

“I haven’t re-read the book in 16 years,” she stated in a recent telephone interview. The process of making it into an e-book was “a very laborious process because the original book was published before the electronic age.”

Her enthusiasm for Joffrey hasn’t diminished. “Robert Joffrey was a pioneer in teaching ballet. He was the first person to have a ballet class just for boys or men,” she explained. “It’s so extraordinary what these two men did for male dancers in this country.”

As an example, she mentioned the piece “Olympics” which “really celebrated men.”

Joffrey also contradicted the wisdom of the times, knocking aside “the whole legacy of Russian ballet.” These two men, Robert Joffrey and Gerarld Gapino were “not inside the proper channels” and took ballet “from a completely different end.”

When Joffrey started his first company in 1956, ballet dancers didn’t study modern dance. The notion of cross-training and cross-pollination hadn’t been introduced. But Joffrey brought in Twyla Tharp (“Deuce Coupe”) who was more street form and post modern dance.

Anawalt compared Joffrey to Forrest Gump. In the movie, Gump just happened to be in the right place for a historic event. For Joffrey, the ballet went to the White House at the invitation of Jackie Kennedy and were in Moscow introducing a rock ballet when Kennedy was shot. Joffrey went multimedia and scored the first and only Time Magazine cover for a dance company.

Because of Joffrey, Anawalt commented, “We look at culture differently.”

“When I wrote this book, it took seven years of my life.,” Anawalt explained.  “I put everything I had into it. I love this company. I grew up seeing them from the time I was 10. In 1983, I became the dance critic for the Herald.”

Yet Anawalt found there was “this big hole in our literature.” There was no literature on Joffrey, “no way to see the history of this remarkable company that is so American.” Perhaps, Anawalt conjectured, “because its indigenously ours, we didn’t take pride in it.”

One published, her book spent two weeks on the LA Times bestseller list. Going back to it for the movie and the e-book was like “revisiting a great, fabulous friend who I hadn’t been able to talk about in a long time.” Anawalt was able to share a lot of material with director Bob Hercules for the documentary.

Living in Los Angeles, Anawalt has only one minor quibble with the movie, commenting, “I wish they had focused on the 1980s in Los Angeles. That period of time, from the 1980s to Joffrey’s death, great works were made” and the Joffrey had a second home in Los Angeles. This was before the move to Chicago.

Anawalt is also enthusiastic about how American culture has changed its attitudes toward dance with popular series such as SYTYCD where the original choreography  intrigues her and on “Dancing with the Stars” she finds fan favorite Derek Hough “dreamy.”  On TV, he reads as “consummate dancer.”

While Anawalt loves the end result of “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” and she was enthusiastic about the other major dance movie that recently opened, “Pina,” dance, she feels, should be seen live. “I take enormous pleasure in watching people move–playing basketball or surfing. I enjoy movement in all its forms, seeing how people negotiate space and what the rules are of this space.”

We agree with Anawalt’s advice. See this film. Be inspired. Go see live dance and (for us, at least), get out and dance to your own drummer.

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

Make no mistake. Director Bob Hercules’ “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is a love letter to the Joffrey, a company that heavily influenced American ballet and American dance in general. The movie premieres this Friday, 27 January 2012,  at the Lincoln Center in NYC as part of the opening night of the Dance on Camera Festival. For dance fans, this is a movie well-worth watching, if only to affirm that America has made contributions to ballet. The movie will screen on 28 January 2012 at the Pasadena Laemmle 7. For other screenings in Los Angeles and other areas go to this link.

At the simulcast screenings,  people will be able to use Twitter to send questions (using #joffreymovie) to the post screening panel. Panelists include moderator, Sasha Anawalt; director Bob Hercules; current Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley C. Wheater; former Joffrey principal dancers Trinette Singleton and Christian Holder.

A special LA premiere screening on 1 February 2012 at Zipper Hall, Los Angeles, CA includes a live panel with LA based Joffrey alumni.

The movie is based on Sasha Anawalt’s 1996 book, “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company.” The book is being re-issued on Friday as an e-book. Anawalt is currently the director of the University of Southern California Annenberg Arts Journalism Programs and is a former dance critic.

Hercules has dance on his mind lately. PBS just broadcast his documentary on Bill T. Jones, “A Good Man,” which is part of their American Masters series. The director, Hercules has dance on his mind lately. PBS just broadcast his documentary on Bill T. Jones, “A Good Man,” which is part of their American Masters series. The Jones’ documentary is more about process. Jones’ choreographed “Fela!” which was just in Los Angeles as part of a national tour and is concerned with the live of a political singer and musician from Nigeria. “A Good Man” looks at Jones as he creates an original dance-theater piece to honor Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial–a two year process.

This documentary movie, “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is about how the boundaries of ballet were broken.

In the movie, Anawalt states that Joffrey, “took ballet off the pedestal.” How did he do that?

Robert Joffrey was trained by Mary Ann Wells in Seattle, Washington. He was not born with the common name of Robert. His original name was Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan. Imagine that. His father was Afghani. His mother was Italian. Born on 24 December 1930, Abdullah Khan must have longed to have a name that fit in better to America. Although we are later told that his father was a practicing Muslim, we aren’t told how his father (or mother) felt about Joffey’s name change or decision to become a ballet dancer.

Joffrey brought in Gerald Arpino to world of dance. The New York-born Arpino was stationed in Seattle as a Coast Guard, when he met the younger Joffrey and began to study dance. Joffrey and Arpino moved to New York to form a dance company. They began by doing one-night shows, going from town to town, performing in colleges and high schools–like the Johnny Appleseed of dance. The tall dark Arpino was also Italian with the body of an Adonis, and his Catholic mother was worried about Arpino’s soul, purportedly because he was dancing, according to the film. One can’t help but wonder if not for other reasons.

New York already had ballet dance companies, most famously the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. George Balanchine formed the American Ballet in 1935 and it was invited to become the resident ballet of the Met the same year.

The American Ballet Theatre was founded in 1939 and has commissioned works by Balanchine, Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp. It might have been informative to learn how the Joffrey was perceived by the other two companies.

According to the documentary, Arpino was a dynamic dancer and he and Joffrey brought a more masculine feeling to ballet. The overhead lift, which was used in other dance forms, was brought into ballet and men began to do more than lifting a woman from one place to another. As proof we’re shown the 1965 “Viva Vivaldi” and New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff states that until the Bolshoi Ballet came through the U.S. on tour, the American companies did not use two arms and lift way up over their heads. The Bolshoi Ballet’s first American tour was in the mid sixties.

That’s a curious thing to consider when in the Broadway musicals and movie musicals, men were highlighted and the higher the lifts the better. Let’s not forget that Balanchine also choreographed for musical theater and movies (e.g. “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1935″ and the “Goldwyn Follies”). Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) also choreographed for the New York City Ballet as well as Broadway musicals such as the 1954 “Peter Pan,” the 1959 “Gypsy” and the 1957 “West Side Story.”

Consider the 1954 movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” in which four of the seven brothers were professional dancers, including Jacques d’Amboise who was on loan from the New York City Ballet. The youngest brother was played by gymnast Russ Tamblyn. Consider the heat generated by the men dancing in “West Side Story the balletic “Prologue.”

New York City seems to be especially in tune with Broadway musicals and theater, more so than ballet and opera. Certainly this should make the attention toward theater high and it’s hard to believe that dancers being in New York might not think about Broadway or the possibility of being featured in a movie during a time when musicals still were quite popular in Hollywood.

Hercules’ documentary perceives the world of ballet in isolation from other dance, something that Joffrey and Arpino wanted to change. Without money, however, they couldn’t take their small company to the next level. Who would invest in a small dance company? Rebekah Harkness. The documentary never becomes snitty when discussing the eventual fallout between Harkness and Joffrey.

A comment from someone in the Harkness family might have balanced the documentary. The New York Times review of the biography suggests that balance a mental problem for that particular family. According to the documentary, Harkness wanted to be more than just a patron. She wanted to be the artistic director. Joffrey and Arpino weren’t willing to give up control just for money, but there were contracts that weren’t so easily broken. Joffrey and Arpino survived Harkness. One wonders if they ever ran into her again. The problems of financing the new company would come up again.

Despite these financial woes, the dancing duo took chances. They re-staged great historical dances such as  German choreographer’s Kurt Jooss’ 1933 “The Green Table” and the 1917 “Parade” performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

“The Green Table” is about the futility of war and although Jooss had the growing popularity of Hitler and the power of the Nazi regime in mind, for the Joffrey Ballet, the revival of this piece was perfect for the counter culture movement in 1967. The company itself was touched by the movements of the times. Members had been drafted and even died in the Vietnam War.

Yet others members were also involved in disco and philosophical trends. That was incorporated into the 1967 “Asarte” which got the company on the cover of Time Magazine. Then there was the 1976 collaboration with Twyla Tharp, “Deuce Coupe.”

If ABT was Balanchine, New York City was classic and Joffrey was about current event. Eventually, that current event was Prince who gave Joffrey his music and Joffrey made that into a crowd-pleaser “Billboards” in the 1980s. Critics were not so easily pleased.

Once you drop a celebrity name, particularly someone who is living such as the enigmatic Prince, you have to get some sort of comment from him. One can’t help but wonder what Prince thought of Joffrey and “Billboards.” One wonders who the Beach Boys felt as well.

Despite what Harkness thought and did and what critics may have thought, Joffrey Ballet was important for its many firsts. The company was the first to perform at the White House (under John F. Kennedy) and were the first company to perform a rock ballet in Russia–ironically hearing about Kennedy’s assassination while there. They were the first company to use multi-media and for that very ballet, “Asarte,” they were the first company to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

How could Hollywood resist these rebels in tights and tutus?

How could Hollywood resist these rebels in tights and tutus? In 2001, the movie “Save the Last Dance” showed the company performing “Sea Shadow” and “Les Présages.” In that movie Sara (Julia Stiles) gives up ballet and a Juilliard audition due to emotional problems, but renews her interest in dance thanks to a pre-med student (Sean Patrick Thomas).

Robert Altman madea movie based on the Joffrey as they were in Chicago. Malcolm McDowell stood in as as Gerald Arpino in this 2003 movie. The screenplay is by Neve Campbell (who starred in the movie) and Barbara Turner. The Chicago Suntimes’ Roger Ebert felt that McDowell’s character was a stand-in for Altman himself–wanting to create art, but always concerned with making money.

This, like the consideration of Broadway, isn’t part of Hercules’ documentary. One wonders how Arpino felt about Altman and the movie. Hercules’ documentary about the “Mavericks of American Dance” compartmentalizes Joffrey, looking at the people and the essence of what was Joffrey.

Of course, no one lives forever. Joffrey died, discretely of AIDS, even though by 1988, AIDS was no longer a secret in the New York performance art circles. The company moved to Chicago in 1995, which the documentary advises was not a town known for dance. Arpino died from cancer, but his successor as artistic director had already been found–Ashley Wheater.

There was another Los Angeles connection that the movie overlooks. From 1982-1992, a whole decade, the Joffrey had a second home in Los Angeles. This isn’t mentioned in the documentary. Hollywood and Los Angeles might feel a bit snubbed.

Hercules’ “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is a portrait of a dance company, comfortably cocooned by the keepers of the flame. Based on a book by a fan and a dance critic, the documentary celebrates the history of the company without being too critical. Movies are the way dance should be remembered because words suffer from poverty of description. So see the movie; watch the dance and be inspired by the legacy of two men in the world of dance.

“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” makes its world premiere on the opening night of the Dance on Camera Film Festival Lincoln Center, NYC on 27 January 2012. On January 28th, the film will be simulcast to theaters around the country including a live post screening q&a from Lincoln Center with notable Joffrey alumni. For more information on screenings, visit the movie’s website.

Local Los Angeles screenings include:

Laemmle’s Claremont 5 Claremont CA

Laemmle’s Town Center 5 Encino CA

Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 Pasadena CA

Laemmle’s Monica 4 Santa Monica CA

‘Bouncing Cats’ illustrates the joy of dance

You’ve probably heard of Hepcats, Stray Cats and even cool cats, but what about “Bouncing Cats”?  This documentary, “Bouncing Cats,” shows how the African American art of hip hop has a positive influence on the children (and adults) of Uganda via Abraham “Abramz” Tekya’s Breakdance Project Uganda and will be show on the Documentary Channel, 19 Nov. 2011, at 8 p.m.

Produced by Red Bull Media House and directed by Australian filmmaker Nabil Elderkin, the documentary won awards at the Urbanworld Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival and the Southern Utah International Documentary Film Festival.

There are dark moments in this documentary when you realize that most American ghettoes would be a step up for the people living in poverty in Uganda. Tekya launched the Breakdance Project Uganda in February 2006. Tekya was orphaned at an early age, losing both is parents to AIDS. He decided to invite Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon of the Rock Steady Crew to Africa and was delightedly surprised when Crazy Legs accepted the invitation.

The documentary gives us a brief history to help viewers understand Uganda’s plight. It was a British protectorate from 1894, but from whom were the British protecting the native Ugandans? Independence from the UK was achieved in 1962, but in 1971, Idi Amin rose to power. The Uganda-Tanzania War i n1979 ended Amin’s reign of terror. The current president Yoweri Museveni has to deal with a civil war against the militant syncretic Christian group, Lord’s Resistance Army.

Jolly Grace Okot, director of Invisible Children in Uganda, has been involved and talks about the plight of children and youth who grew up being worried about abduction and surviving abduction and even slavery, sometimes returning as children with children in tow.

Historically, there has been a division between the North and the South according to the documentary. This is a forgivable simplification of matters which are to complicated a whole different movie would have been required to explain it clearly.  By language, the North is Nilotic and the South Bantu. The capital city is in the South, Kampala.

Having grown up an orphan, Tekya understands what the children of Uganda need: something to be proud of. And something that transcends the boundaries of the 52 tribes and 52 languages and the hate created by war. He grew up watching Crazy Legs and finding solace in art, especially hip hop. The skills of dancing are something they can own, something no one can take away.

Crazy Legs encourages the Ugandans to show him their native dances and shows them some b-boy stylings, loving the innocence in Uganda that has perhaps been lost in the U.S. And people are eager to learn, more people than Crazy Legs and his small crew (Anthony “Ynot” Denaro and the Long Beach-raised Ervin Arana) imagined, show up and even wait outside.

Hip hop crosses generation gaps and tribal boundaries.  “Hip hop owes Africa,” Somali musician and poet, K’Naan explains. Through contact with international hip hop artists, the people of Uganda use computers and learn computer skills in a place where few families own computers and have Internet access.

The innocence is seen in the pure joy of moving and performing and giving other people the joy of music and dance.

Director Elderkin doesn’t shy away from the evidence of war and poverty. The mutilated face of one man is seen in close-up as well as his arms that end in stumps. He was used as an example. His ears, nose and hands were cut off and he was sent back to his village. Yet he doesn’t express hate. He expresses hope for the future of Uganda and his children and we see his delight as he learns how to dance.

Narrated by Common, with interviews with Mos Def, Will.I.Am and K’Naan, this documentary reminds us of the power of one determined person, and the power of dance to unite and heal. “It is the articulation of the breadless people,” K’naan comments. “And that in itself becomes bread….It is what ignites practical solutions.” And dance can be an international language.

“Bouncing Cats” airs on the Documentary Channel (DISH Network Channel 197 and DirecTV Channel 267) on 19 Nov. 2011 at 8 p.m. (EST)

All scheduled screenings:

  • 19 Nov. 2011, 8 p.m.
  • 19 Nov. 2011, 11 p.m.
  • 25 Nov. 2011, 6 p.m.
  • 29 Dec. 2011, 2:30 p.m.
  • 26 Jan. 2012, 9:30 p.m.
  • 27 Jan 2012 12:30 a.m.

Justin Bieber’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’

Yes, here’s an old classic sung by Justin Bieber using Animagic (really Rankin/Bass stop-motion techniques).

Music video by Justin Bieber performing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. (C) 2011 The Island Def Jam Music Group.

Here Bieber become part of the classic Rankin-Bass TV special “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Here’s a clip from the ending of the feature.

This isn’t the first time animation has been used for this song:

The actual song was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie in 1934, debuting in November on Eddie Cantor’s radio show. The TV special was produced in 1970 with Fred Astaire narrating. It tells the original story of Santa Claus.

Rankin/Bass used stop-motion. Their characters were dolls with spheroid body parts. The company which began as Videocraft International, Ltd., and was also known as Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment and Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc., was founded in 1960 but eventually was merged into Warner Bros.

The founder Arthur Rankin, Jr. is still alive (born July 19, 1924) and lives in New York.  The co-founder Jules Bass (born September 16, 1935 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) lives in New York and Paris and now writes children’s books.

Feature films

 Animated TV specials

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