To say that dance is the most elusive of the arts is the first cliché of dance writing. To argue that dance is best seen live comes a close second. Who has not felt disappointment when viewing a film of a performance that one has experienced live? George Balanchine has, for one. The twentieth century's greatest choreographer felt that most visual recordings of his work failed to live up to what he could see with his eyes. And yet, there were a few films made of his ballets that did satisfy his exacting standards, some of which were filmed by Radio-Canada/CBC with his help here in Montreal.
Indeed, Canada can proudly claim a distinguished history of dance cinematography beyond Balanchine. Over at the National Film Board studio in Montreal, Oscar-winning animator Norman McLaren made three dance films, one of which, Pas de deux (1968), is considered a masterpiece. However, those glory days of dance film production are over, and funding for the medium remains elusive. Still, creativity in Canadian dance is as vibrant as ever, and directors and cinematographers continue on despite the obstacles.
This March, Montreal's twenty-third edition of the International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA) will premiere Marlene Millar's and Philip Szporer's Moments in Motion/Au fil du mouvement, which profiles seven emerging Canadian choreographers.
Karissa Barry (left) and Amber Funk (right) perform Capo, choreographed by Day Helesic, one of the artists featured in Moments in Motion.
You could say that these co-directors are more than a little sympathetic to their subjects. Both Millar and Szporer were once dancers themselves: they met in 1986 while working for New York choreographer Charles Dennis. Later, Millar concentrated on studying film while Szporer pursued literature and journalism. After university, Millar went on to direct and edit numerous arts and social documentaries in Canada and the US. Szporer, meanwhile, became one of Canada's leading dance critics, all the while nursing an interest in filmmaking. In 1996, he got his first taste of dance film, working as a consultant for Philippe Baylaucq's Lodela, the last dance film to be made on the National Film Board's sound stage in Montreal. Three years later, Szporer and Millar teamed up to participate in the UCLA National Dance/Media Project, and the ten weeks they spent in California led to several film commissions in the US.
Director Philippe Baylaucq (right) guides choreographer José Navas (centre) and dancer Chi Long (left) in Lodela.
From the two years they spent working in American dance and film (all the while remaining based in Montreal), the two gained much valuable experience. More than anything, though, their US work prompted them to ask, as Millar puts it, "Well, what's exactly going on in our country? How could we contribute to all that?" They also felt that Canadian dance was mired by its provincial attitude. The refrain in Quebec that "there isn't anything going on in the rest of the country" was one Szporer, especially, had tired of hearing in his job as a dance critic. Moments in Motion is a retort to that perception.
In a sense, Moments in Motion asks what being an emerging choreographer in Canada means. To answer that question, Szporer and Millar travelled to different communities across the country and met with choreographers in their studios and homes to gain a sense of who they were, not only as creators but also as people. If anything, what the film shows is that "emerging" does not necessarily mean "twenty-year-old." The film also shows off choreographers who are as comfortable using words as they are dancing and creating. Featured are Hinda Essadiqi (Montreal), Sarah Stoker (St. John's), Natasha Bakht (Ottawa), Byron Chief-Moon (Lethbridge), Malgorzata Nowacka (Toronto), Day Helesic (Vancouver) and Audrey Lehouillier (Montreal). On choosing these artists, Millar stresses that she and her co-director "never had trouble agreeing ... We weren't judging people's work. It wasn't about what we like [stylistically], it was really about what [the choreographers] were committed to, what they had to say." A good thing too. For instance, Audrey Lehouillier, whose earlier work had made her seem like she was down with the urban scene, has transitioned into a new, quietly intimate phase of creation.
While the choreographers' work is indeed central to the film, Moments in Motion is also concerned with how lived experience and geographical context influence choreography. In the portrait of Sarah Stoker, the landscape of Newfoundland and her community of fellow artists are at the fore. In the segment on Byron Chief-Moon, the choreographer's Aboriginal roots in Alberta figure prominently. And the concerns of Natasha Bakht's work as a lawyer turn out to inform her choreography in an intriguing way.
Dancers Malgorzata Nowacka (front) and Tim Spronk (hidden) in a piece choreographed by Nowacka, from Moments in Motion.
Besides exploring what makes these choreographers tick, the efforts of Millar and Szporer to showcase new talent are an act of preservation: they have managed to record what young choreographers are doing now. Such thoughtful documentation, beyond a mere camcorder in the corner of a studio, is regretfully lacking when it comes to this country's bona fide choreographic stars, past or present.
Szporer passionately asks, "Do we know, for instance, what the first sketches of Édouard Lock are? No. Or, if we do, I don't know about them. Do we know what the first trials of Jeanne Renaud ... or Jean-Pierre Perreault in his first meanderings and choreography were? To have that kind of thing ... [and] done by filmmakers and people who understand and love dance and have a passion for it, to be able to tell those stories, is such an important part of our heritage."
Watching Moments in Motion, it is worth keeping the very real fragility of dance in mind, especially here in Montreal (which has experienced some setbacks in the last year, with organizations closing shop or reporting massive debt). Should all that creative energy happening onstage now in Canada, whether new or established, go unrecognized, undocumented? Szporer points out, "We had this kind of sophisticated history ... our own homegrown tradition in dance media format ... but we have moved away from it."
Now is the time, building on Moments in Motion, to reclaim it.
Moments in Motion will be screened on March 16 at 9:30 PM at Cinéma ONF, 1564 St. Denis Street (Metro Berri-UQAM). Two other dance films will be featured: Dutch filmmaker Clara van Gool's short Reimerswaal and Tim Southam's documentary Danser Perreault, about one of Montreal's greatest choreographers.
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.