Dancemaker

             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.


                                     Rating:        A-
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.