A week of dance movies in San Francisco

Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Dance Film Festival celebrated its 10 year anniversary. Featuring full movies and curated collections of short films, the festival focus is on the power of dance to tell a compelling story. For ballet lovers specifically, there were some great options, like ENB/Akram Khan’s Giselle and Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit (winner of the festival prize for “Best Live Performance Capture”). I quickly jumped at the opportunity to catch the Royal Ballet in a programme that included two short films, as well as the Ballet Boyz’s ambitious live action version of Romeo and Juliet, which they recently filmed in Hungary.

One of the shorts was In Her Hands, filmmaker Alice Pennefather’s homage to French sculptor Camille Claudel (the other was Will Tuckett’s Nela). This movie completes Pennefather Films’s trilogy about 19th century artists, as she had mentioned to us a couple of years ago and, just like her previous shorts, it takes place in an evocative setting: a replica of Claudel’s studio. You can always count on Alice’s amazing eye for casting and here, Natalia Osipova brings her artistic sensibility to the tragic role of Camille. As she remembers her life story and relationship with Auguste Rodin, she dances a duet with the dreamy Matthew Ball, and imagines them both as sculptures. If this is the end of a trilogy, we certainly hope it is the beginning of another (we are already intrigued by the teaser for Esprit du Jardin), and that Pennefather Films keeps delighting us with works that are pure poetry on screen.

Natalia Osipova. Still from In Her Hands. Photo: © Alice Pennefather

Natalia Osipova as Camille Claudel in “In Her Hands”. Photo: © Alice Pennefather

Speaking of the female eye on dance, a director who is making waves is Alla Kovgan, whose debut feature, Cunningham, is doing the festival rounds. Although this movie was not screened as part of the SF Dance Film Festival (and I did wonder why), it was shown at the Vogue Theatre here in San Francisco during festival week and it is simply one of the best dance movies I have ever seen. Cunningham is a sensitive and elevated piece of filmmaking, which must be seen to be believed. And for maximum impact, it MUST be experienced in glorious 3D.

Speaking to us after the screening, Alla mentioned that her departure point had been Pina in 3D, the dance movie that Cunningham is set to draw the most comparisons with. She told us about the particular challenges adapting her concept to a movie about the American visionary choreographer, and the initial skepticism with which her ideas were met, especially by producers. Despite all that, she managed to secure funding and her instincts to insist on the medium were spot on. Far from being a gimmick, the 3D is integral to her vision. Merce Cunningham, she explained, was always concerned with spatial thinking and, indeed, his choreography becomes a sensorial experience here, with audiences immersed into the dance space. In Summerspace, one of the many memorable sequences, I felt like I was being transported into a warm and whimsical infinite and that, at any moment, I might materialise on the screen. You just want to follow the dancers everywhere they go.

Still from Cunningham's Summerspace.

Still from Cunningham’s Summerspace. Photo © Mko Malkshasyan

The dance sequences cover a 30-year creative period, from 1942 to 1972 (they feel so fresh they could have been choreographed yesterday). They are interspersed with archival footage of Merce, his partner John Cage and their frequent collaborator, Bob Rauschenberg. Merce’s dancers, from past and present also feature. The pieces are wonderfully trippy and absorbing, showing us the choreographer’s genius in using the beauty of the balletic line, while also pushing boundaries. Shot in 18 days, with limited funding, this movie is a testament to the power of the make-it-happen mindset. It is a miracle. I could spend this entire article just saying how glorious Cunningham is, but I’ll wrap up: go, go, go!

Also made with limited funding was the film version of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, a.k.a the Ballet Boyz’s Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words, which is a completely different experience from the ballet itself. Shot in the same movie set as the series The Borgias, it has a fresh and contemporary feel, thanks to the emphasis on live action, and also because Nunn and Trevitt decided to opt for no make-up or wigs. We see the movement from an angle similar to that of a dancer on stage, as the action unfolds nonstop.

Francesca Hayward as Juliet. Photo by Reneff-Olson Productions

Francesca Hayward as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words. Photo: © Reneff-Olson Productions

I thought there were pros and cons to this approach, with the main issue being that you’re always so close you cannot always take in the choreography as a tableau, or to admire the beauty of balletic line from afar. I imagine this was probably due to spatial limitations imposed by the actual film set. An example is the crypt scene, where Juliet’s tomb lies behind a gate. In order to have space to perform that last harrowing “pas de deux”, Romeo has to drag Juliet’s lifeless body to the foreground, but he later returns to the area behind the gate to drink the poison.

Ultimately, this way of presenting the ballet works because The Royal Ballet dancers are superb actors who look natural and effortless with the camera up close. They were well cast by the Ballet Boyz, with Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell leading a fab line up that also includes a menacing Matthew Ball as Tybalt, Marcelino Sambé as Mercutio and James Hay as Benvolio. Nicholas Georgiadis’s amazing costumes are another big plus. They are a thing of wonder and audiences are able to notice details and textures that even the best pair of binoculars won’t capture at the theatre. In a Q&A after the screening, we were able to ask Michael Nunn some questions, and I asked if he and Trevitt envisaged shooting other ballets in this style. The idea, he explained, is to have a MacMillan trilogy, with Manon and Mayerling as candidates for next instalments. Both seem perfect choices. Let’s hope Ed Watson is still around and dancing Prince Rudolph then.

Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova

Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in “In Her Hands”. Photo: © Alice Pennefather

Stay tuned for UK screenings

The BalletBoyz’s Romeo and Juliet:

Cunningham in 3D:

  • in cinemas from 13 March 2020

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.

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