Former MCB dancer Ezra Hurwitz is part of a new generation of dance filmmakers who are doing more than just filming beautiful steps. He’s using his insights as a professional dancer, combined with a keen eye for the conceptual and the unique, to elevate the medium. The New York City native spent 12 years at the School of American Ballet before dancing in Miami and returning to the big apple to pursue his love through a new lens. He took a break from working on the set of one of his newest film projects to chat to Wiebke Schuster about his transition into film, and his recent collaborations with one of the coolest choreographers out there, Justin Peck:
WS: Where is ‘home’ for you, and how did you get there?
Ezra Hurwitz: I grew up in NYC at the School of American Ballet, dancing all the children’s roles you can imagine. I was a prince in the Nutcracker too many times [the New York Times spoke highly of young Ezra] and Fritz as well… I was one of the few dancers who grew from the Children’s Division to the Pre-Professional and Advanced Division. Upon graduation, I was offered a job by Edward Villella to dance at Miami City Ballet (MCB). Villella was a huge icon of mine as a male dancer under Balanchine, so needless to say: I was excited.
I danced for Edward during most of my career, and one year for Lourdes Lopez. Then I retired! It was much earlier than I had anticipated: when you’re training, you never really think of life after dance for long. You’re thinking about having a long, successful career. MCB is a really challenging company in that they perform a lot, and travel around Florida. They don’t have a “home theatre”, so it’s a bit like a travelling circus, which can be really tiring and I was dealing with injuries too. I had become interested in other storytelling mediums, like photography, journalism and digital marketing. I contributed to a book series, interviewing répétiteurs, choreographers and composers. I really enjoyed getting involved with something a little more tangible and long-lasting. This would eventually lead me back to NYC and Columbia University.
WS: So you’re relatively new to filmmaking?
EH: Yes, that is a relatively new path for me, though it was also a somewhat natural progression from photography and my interest in digital marketing helped too. When I returned, I immediately started working with Ellen Bar, the Director of Media Projects at NYCB. I learned a lot from her. I was surrounded by good people and great opportunities to explore my interest in film. I also kept a really good relationship with MCB.
WS: Thinking about your first gig in that new role, what was it like seeing dance through a different lens?
EH: One of my first real experiments was Heatscape, a film promoting Justin Peck’s first major commission for MCB. Justin and I are longtime friends, having trained in the same class at SAB. When he was in Miami, he approached me to direct and produce a short for the premiere of his work. Visually, there was the potential for an arresting piece, drawing on the stimulating mixture of Justin’s choreography with the work of visual artist Shepard Fairey. I jumped at the opportunity! Personally, it also represented a tribute to my time at MCB, which has so defined my career. Since then, I’ve been able to return a few times: I just filmed there recently for the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
WS: What are your favorite dance videos or movies, narrative or otherwise?
EH: I really love Opus Jazz. Ellen Bar, who taught me so much, directed it. I love The Red Shoes, it’s a classic. It is so surreal and yet the narrative is so well-structured. There’s also this short film by Hugo Niebeling of Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins dancing Balanchine’s Duo Concertant. It’s this bizarrely well-shot stage performance, and it’s really framed by concept. I saw it right before I created this short piece on Sara Mearns, In a Day’s Work, and it really inspired me. I also love Wim Wenders’s Pina. The challenge for dance on film for me is not to rely purely on the physical, the beauty of dance and dancers. That seems like a waste of the medium to me often. I think the challenge is to elevate dance. If you don’t find a way to do that, I feel like it loses some of its appeal, some of the spontaneous energy and it can fall flat on screen. The movement needs to be in conversation with the camera. Sometimes it can be about finding different angles, ways that allow you to experience the dance differently. Pina is a really good example of a filmmaker trying to film dance not just in an archival fashion, but in a way that is engaging, visually arresting and just different. That’s exactly the kind of work that inspires me.
WS: Tell me about Why We Dance.
EH: Why We Dance was meant to be a docu-piece honouring MCB’s 30th anniversary, so I tried to zoom in on something that I felt was very unique to the company: its emotional generosity, camaraderie and openness. Dancers spend so much time together, in a studio where there are few physical boundaries to hide behind. All emotional intensity is out in the open, which creates an atmosphere of unqualified intimacy and trust. In Miami, I really felt a special kind of camaraderie and emotional connection between the dancers. We interviewed dancers across the ranks, and by the end of these 30-minute sessions, people were just going for it, talking freely in the privacy of a secluded room, with only a technician present. One of my dearest friends, Jeanette Delgado, was struggling to come back from injury at that point. It was so interesting to hear her perspective, since she wasn’t in the middle of performance season, like everyone else. She was nostalgic for her time on stage, and then hopeful for the future. The last little piece of dialogue in the voiceover is Jeanette talking, her voice almost cracking and she says: “It’s you, and the music, and the audience..and it’s just…magic.”
WS: How about your latest collaboration with Justin, Countenance?
EH: Justin and I met as teenagers. Now we’re next door neighbours, but we weren’t as close then as we are now. I felt like I met him again when we were both professional dancers, we reconnected in a different way. The older you get, the more you start valuing that shared experience of training together as kids. Working with him in San Francisco was very different from our initial collaboration in Miami: Justin wasn’t able to be involved in the filming of Countenance because he was between Paris and Miami creating and rehearsing. It was daunting: it’s one thing to create a small video piece, but creating in essence a theatrical trailer where you’re trying to lift the content to a new medium made me a little nervous, as I didn’t want to misrepresent his work. At the same time, it felt really good to be trusted and to have so much freedom.
I was able to be in San Francisco when he was initially creating the work last summer, so I watched the process and knew the dancers at SFB really well too. I hoped to tap into something unique about the piece, the dancers, and the experience they had with Justin. I think I was able to do that, while at the same time putting it into my own narrative structure and concept. We set it at 16th Street Station, an old train station that’s been around since 1912 in Oakland and has been used for different events. When I first saw the space, I was floored! There were these huge windows, but no power so we really had to rely on the weather gods for a nice day to get us some beautiful natural light. Filming there was a race against the clock to keep our light. The other challenge was the original marble floor. Amazingly beautiful, but not suitable to dance on. We ended up taking the pointe shoes off and putting the dancers in white sneakers. These last minute restrictions help you zero in on something interesting and different and I think that’s what happened here. But it definitely made me nervous because I couldn’t consult with Justin, and the ballet was very much choreographed for pointe.
WS: Any last thoughts about dance on film? What’s next for you?
EH: Capturing dance on film is so important for the art form because so much of our life happens casually and rapidly, and we consume so much digitally. Waiting for that one performance at Lincoln Center is an unrealistic way of engaging people, as they’ve grown accustomed to constantly having new content to digest. Financially too, in terms of engaging new audiences and patrons, it’s so important to fill that need and fuel their curiosity with interesting content. Dance movies are a great tool for that. Filmmaking and producing are painstaking processes which require a lot of the skills that come naturally to dancers, so it’s a great career path for former dancers. It takes dedication and patience. Attention to detail, and will power are also key! I am also starting to do more commercial work with non-arts organizations and some fiction filmmaking. I am currently on set directing a short (it’s so much harder to direct non-dancers!), but I am excited for a new chapter too. I’ll also be working with Justin on his new commission for the Paris Opera Ballet over the summer.
One thing that’s really dear to my heart was this short I did for the Martha Graham Dance Company. This was a really special piece because, not only did I know the choreographer, Pontus Lidberg, but he was using music that was composed by my late grandfather. Highlighting their process and this work in particular was very dear to my heart.