When Hollywood indulges in its annual lovefest known as the Academy
Awards, the average viewer is watching to see who will win in the major
categories. Few care what animated film receives the prize or worse, what
documentary will win. This year, the esteemed Academy even announced
that they were considering merging the two separated documentary
categories (feature-length and shorts) into one as so few nonfiction films
receive widespread theatrical releases. Of course, this is the same branch
that year after year has overlooked the critics' darlings (Michael Moore's
Roger and Me, anything by Errol Morris) and the truly worthy (Claude
Lanzman's monumental and definitive Shoah).
The five features nominated in 1999 appeared to be quite worthy
(At the time of first writing this review, I had seen three of them.)
One of the five is Matthew Diamond's portrait of the Paul Taylor Dance
Company, Dancemaker. Diamond is a former dancer and choreographer
who has found success as a TV director. He has a perfect eye for capturing
what the performers go through on stage and he frames his film with
footage of actual performances. The opening footage is shot from both
in the wings and from the front of the house, giving a very up close look
at the company members. The soundtracks is filled with their breathing,
the backstage cues; from behind the scenes it looks like chaos, from the
audience's perspective, art. That in a nutshell is what Diamond sets out
to explore — the serendipity of creation and the brilliance of execution.
The director focused on the formation of "Pizzolla Caldera", a
tango-influenced dance. From Taylor's opening confession that he has
no idea what he plans to do to watching him shape the piece for particular
dancers to its thrilling premiere at Manhattan's City Center, this film
literally soars. Diamond has captured the sweat and hard work that goes
into the formation of an artistic endeavor. He also strikes the perfect
balance of presenting enough information for the newcomer so as not
to bore the dance aficionado. There is just enough biographical background
on Taylor divulged (his being sent to live with foster parents, a brief
mention of his work as a Martha Graham dancer, etc.) There is even a
marvelous segment which intercuts footage of Taylor dancing "Aureole"
in 1962 and current company member Patrick Corban performing the
same dance with Taylor looking on. There is a sense of history and
continuity in this sequence.
While the focus of the film is on the creation of one dance piece,
it also veers off into other areas. There are interviews with past company
members who share their fond and not so fond memories of working for
Taylor. Similarly, current company members speak about not only what it
is to be a dancer (the daily catalog of aches and pains, the joy of
performing) but also a Paul Taylor dancer. Diamond follows the company
on a trip to India that provides further examples of their commitment
and passion. When a technical glitch causes the pre-recorded music to
stop, the corps continues with the number — it is a breathtaking moment
that captures both the behind-the-scenes frenzy as technicians attempt
to rectify the problem and the dancers elegantly and simply continuing
as if there were no problem.
Once back in NYC, there are additional problems with the musicians'
union's objections to the use of a non-union orchestra. And there are
allusions to the AIDS-related deaths of several of the dancers, particularly
Taylor's clear favorite whom he had hopes of one day succeeding him. As
the premiere date looms, Diamond focuses on Taylor's work with the
soloists and it is instructive to watch as they anticipate him. As he seeming
creates the steps, the dancer is right there in a symbiotic way. Yet, they
know when not to push, when to accede to his wishes whether it conflicts
with their creative impulses.
Once Dancemaker has had its commercial run, it will undoubtedly
prove a popular video rental for aspiring modern dancers and perhaps will
become a staple on PBS. Despite some flaws (one wants to know more
about Taylor the man — what demons drive him, for instance), this is fine
example of non-fiction filmmaking. It richly deserves its Academy Award
nomination, but it faces stiff competition. Still, Dancemaker provides
glimpses into the creative process of a man whom many feel is the most
important contemporary modern dancer and for that, we should be grateful.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.