TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

Dancing With the Truth
Written by Denis Faye

(July 26, 2012) 

WHERE TO LOOK

Your obvious first step is to check out as many performances as you can. According to Jennifer, it’s best to seek out the greats. “There are four or five great international companies,” she explains. “New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Royal Ballet in London, The Bolshoi, the Kirov, those are the world class companies. But there are a lot of other ones that are also very good locally if that’s where you are.” 

Immersing yourself in dance can become expensive rather quickly, so when taking a break from booking your flight to Moscow, check out a few of the aforementioned company Web sites. The New York City Ballet, for example, offers clips of performances, along with writings on the history of the company, the costumes, the performers, and more. 

The Kirov Web site also offers some interesting links [but you’ll need to brush up on your Cyrillic alphabet to follow them. 

For further insight in the culture, Jennifer’s book, Apollo’s Angels, is an in-depth, well-written look into ballet. 

Finally, ballet dancers are plentiful in any metropolitan area. All you need to do is contact your local dance studio and explain what you need. For the price of a cup of tea, you can easily land yourself a lengthy, fascinating interview. But be prepared. Dance isn’t all tutus and tiaras. If you thought MMA fighters were tough, wait until you hear the grisly stories you’ll get out of a real-life ballerina. 

If ever there was a soul who could wax poetically about ballet, it’s Jennifer Homans. The dancer-turned-historian and NYU Distinguished Scholar in Residence is not only the author of the bestseller Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, she also writes on the subject for The New Republic and The New York Times Review of Books.

Furthermore, she’s discussed the subject on Charlie Rose, NPR’s Fresh Air and in this notable TEDx Talk.

For the most part, Jennifer attacks the subject with overwhelming joy and positivity – unless you bring up Black Swan [Screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andrea Heinz and John J. McLaughlin]. Then, in a fashion befitting the Oscar-nominated dance/horror hybrid film, things take a turn for the ugly, especially regarding the lead character’s descent into madness.

“I’m not going to tell you it doesn’t exist,” Jennifer tells Technically Speaking. “It does, but it’s certainly not the whole story. If it was really like that, nobody would dance!

“To take Swan Lake and make a film within a film, this whole notion was, I thought, brilliant, and it could have been something quite profound. Instead it was just a horror film. So I thought that it was a missed opportunity.”

Luckily for you, the opportunity is still very much available; so read on to learn how one expert feels you can grab it.

What does Hollywood get right about ballet dancing?  

If you’re talking about the culture of dance and what it’s like to be a dancer then you have to go straight to The Red Shoes [Written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]. That’s the classic, romantic, melodramatic vision of the artist and the sacrifices and the devotion that it takes to be a dancer. You could say that Black Swan is a response to that film. It certainly refers to it very self-consciously, but it’s a completely different view of what ballet is about, whereas The Red Shoes is almost heroic and about the love of the art and the discipline and the sacrifice and the joy.

Black Swan is a much, obviously, darker vision about self-mutilation and starvation and the dark side of ballet. It’s a horror film, and because it’s seeing everything through this black vision, it really misses in essence, the main point about dancing.

I suppose people would say, “Well, that’s not the point of the film,” but that is a message that comes across in the film. It does paint a portrait of the dance world even if its primary purpose is to entertain, frighten and engage an audience in this horrific mental and physical decline that the primary dancer in the film goes through.

And that bothers you?  

It’s not so much that I’m saying, “That’s not right,” as I’m saying, “It’s so dark that I actually don’t even relate to these characters.” I mean I don’t feel anything for them, when she dies at the end, I’m not particularly moved. To me it was a huge lost opportunity because the idea was terrific, you know?

And from a dancer’s point of view, Natalie Portman is lovely, but she’s not a dancer and I’m not impressed that she spent two years, or whatever it was that she spent, training. I mean that’s great, but dancers spend 10 years or 15, you know? And one of the great strengths of a film like The Red Shoes is that it used a professional dancer, a great professional dancer, in its main role. So the dance sequences – and there’s one that’s nearly 20 minutes long, I believe – are significant and real and you get a feel for that. Whereas with Aronofsky you know, you’re cutting, you’re pasting, you’re flashing here, going there because she can’t really do it.

That’s very common for Hollywood to have an actor simulating some skill. Are you saying that that doesn’t work so well?  

It doesn’t work so well with dance. Think of The Turning Point [Written by Arthur Laurents], they had Baryshnikov, and they had Leslie Browne, both terrific, tremendous dancers, you know? So that worked from a dance point of view. But here they’ve got Natalie Portman acting the role of a dancer, and while she’s a very good actress, nobody can act technique. Technique is technique, either you’ve got it or you don’t.

That overlaps my next question. What does Hollywood get wrong?  

To me, Black Swan was a wrong turn if there’s a genre called “the dance film” and you want to include in it everything from Astaire to The Red Shoes to Turning Point or West Side Story [Screenplay by Ernest Lehman].

Better films would be The Artist [Written by Michel Hazanavicus] and to me, most significant of all, Pina [Screenplay by Wim Wenders]. Wim Wenders really got the dance right and part of the reason he did is he used 3D. To me, this is the future for the dance film because the dancers in that movie are great. There were other things I had trouble with but the dancing is kinetic, physical, you can really feel it from an audience in a way that you can’t in a flat screen, two dimensions.

So when the dance is part of the narrative, when the movements of the dancers are telling part of the story, how do you feel a screenwriter should go about describing that?  

There are kind of two different kinds of dance films, now that I’m thinking about it. Pina is a more documentary style film – well, it is a documentary – whereas something like The Artist would be much more interesting to look at in that way because the dance is actually integral to the story in the same way that the dance is integral to the story in West Side Story or even The Turning Point and The Red Shoes.

If you look at The Artist from the dance point of view, dance is the transition between silent and sound and because he’s done a silent film he’s making a modern pantomime, which I’ve never seen anyone successfully attempt before, and he really pulls it off. It’s a modern pantomime that has been interspersed with some pretty great dance sequences.

So again you’re coming back to the fact that in a movie, a good dance movie, that the actor has to be a dancer because the dance is the dialogue, it’s telling part of the story.  

Right, right, it is part of the dialogue. And you know, the interesting thing about The Artist is that the lead couple, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, are not professional dancers and apparently they worked quite hard to master these dance sequences. But because of the sort of tap/jazz form that they’re doing, they did master them and because of their enthusiasm and their raw vigor, I thought it really came across and was part of the thrust of the story.

That would be a lot harder with ballet because there’s a lot more technique involved.  

It would be a lot harder with ballet and that’s where Black Swan really falls down.

Another great dance film – but it’s a documentary – is Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse. That’s probably the best dance film I’ve ever seen. What he manages to do is to take you into the life of a dancer. You were talking earlier about the culture of dance. Well, this is the film that gets it right. He takes you inside the Paris Opera and helps you live with these dancers in a way that shows you physically what they’re going through without any of the Black Swan hysteria. It shows, in a much more interesting in a way, the physical challenges of dancing itself, of working it out, of rehearsing, of figuring out how to make these moves happen in your body to this music, to create this or that effect.

So you know, he really takes you into the heart of the tradition itself and of the enterprise of being a dancer.

When you look at stories of other artists, musicians, for example, they can reach a point in their career where they’re successful and they can just coast. Whereas the career of a successful dancer, from what I can perceive, is a lot more like an athlete in that they can’t coast, you can’t stop dancing.  

That’s right. It’s every night, you know? It’s a short career and every dancer is aware that not only can you not do this when you’re 50 usually, except in rare cases, you might be injured tomorrow, and it might be over for you. Every day, every night, every hour is important and is filled with all of the ambition and desire and passion that makes people pursue this art form in the first place.

That stresses me out just hearing you describe it.  

No, it’s great! It’s a perfect metaphor for life.

And that’s how you’d like to see dancers represented.  

The relationship between dancers and film is complicated because dance has no standardized notation so the only real records we have of dances are filmed records. So whatever people put on film is… that’s what we’ve got for the next generations to come, as people die or forget. It’s what’s on film that matters.

I talk with a lot of people in this column about whether film has a responsibility to be accurate. Usually they say no because as long as the audience has a good time that’s all that matters. This sounds like a subtly different message.  

Yeah, it depends on what your aim is, but maybe the thing that a filmmaker could know about making a film about dance is that it’s got an extra loaded quality to it. It’s not that it has to be accurate. Obviously, a film that’s fiction doesn’t have any requirements or any obligations to accuracy or even to authenticity. Aronofsky has every right to make any film he wants to make, and he’s trying to say something that he wants to say.

But these issues do exist, questions of accuracy. We don’t have canvases, and we don’t have scripts, and we don’t have scores of these dances so when a dance goes on film it often gains more importance than it might otherwise have.

Like when Charlie Chaplin filmed Melissa Hayden in Limelight [Written by Charles Chaplin], you know he probably didn’t realize that he was putting on film for later generations the dancing of one of the great ballerinas of the 20th century, and we have very little else of her.

What would you like to see in film about dance, just once, that you’ve never seen before?  

For a screenwriter, if they’re going to capture something about dance I would say make it more complicated because the stories about dance are usually stories that revolve around sex or injury or somehow overcoming some obstacle that the dancer then ends up on the stage at the end and you’ve got this great performance. But these stories are all kind of simplistic in a way. They’re a bit formulaic, and the real story of what it means to be a dancer and how artists in the dance world work and what it’s like to be a choreographer, is a much more complicated story. If someone could capture that some day, that would be tremendous.

What advice would you give a screenwriter who’s setting out to write about ballet and dance?  

I would say you have to get into the studio and really understand what dancers do but you can’t be swept into the mythology.

Dancers have their own ways of approaching their art and outsiders usually see it in these kind of clichéd ways. “Oh my God, look at what they’re doing to their toes!” and “Oh my God, look what they can do with their bodies!” and “Oh my God, look at how disciplined they are!” There’s a kind of awe almost at the art. So it’s important to get inside and see what’s going on and what it means to be that physical in your self-expression.

But I like to imagine that a good screenwriter would also be able to bring a kind of outsider’s view. I don’t think it’s necessarily good to be an insider, because you want to bring an outsider’s view to that and really be able to re-imagine the world of dance.

Are you suggesting that there needs to be more objectivity?  

Not objectivity, imagination. Objectivity would just give you a much colder kind of documentary sort of feel. I’m not saying distance yourself emotionally, I’m just saying bring real imagination, fantasy.