Dance Off

Left: Bertrand Normand, Ballerina, 2007, still from a color film, 77 minutes. Ulyana Lopatkina. Right: Maurice Tourneur, The Blue Bird, 1918, still from a black and white film in 35 mm, 81 minutes. Tytyl and Mytyl (Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle).

CAMERAS AND DANCING BODIES would seem a match made in heaven. Just look at the collaboration between Isaac Julien and Stephen Galloway in the former’s bewitching film Fantôme Afrique (2005) or at the sublimely magical choreography of animated forms in Fantasia (1940): Not for nothing is the film business known as the “motion picture” industry.

But these perfect unions are surprisingly, frustratingly rare, as underlined by a smorgasbord like “Dance on Camera,” presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Dance Films Association at the Walter Reade Theater. This year’s festival features thirty-nine films organized into fourteen programs and including experimental shorts, oldies but goodies, and documentaries of such luminaries as the Russian ballerina Diana Vishneva and the flamenco master Antonio Gades. Topping it off, Hollywood musical magician Busby Berkeley will be feted in two programs that will surely be among the festival’s top tickets.

The French filmmaker Maurice Tourneur might not have Berkeley’s name recognition, but his 1918 silent film The Blue Bird, made during his time in America, ravishes: a shadowy black-and-white Neverland that manages to be both delicate and homespun, and deeply, piercingly strange in a way that few such films for children are these days. The story, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama, follows two young siblings in their search for the bluebird of happiness. They are accompanied by their anthropomorphized pets and household things and must confront such nasties as the Wan Sicknesses. (Wizard of Oz, eat your heart out.) Here, dance is fully, theatrically integrated, giving life to indescribable states of being. The soul of fire is rendered as a sensual, masculine form that evokes Nijinsky. Isadora Duncan–like dancers populate the natural world, cavorting, hand in hand, in diaphanous frocks.

It is, perhaps, unfair to compare Tourneur’s lush visual innovations with the shorts commissioned by the Experimental Media Performing Arts Center. But it is hard to see the meaningful experimentation in works like Joby Emmon’s Kino-Eye (2008), which plays with static, slow-motion divided screens and other such clichés to little effect, despite the presence of the powerful dancer Elena Demyanenko. More pleasing is David Fariás, Carla Schillagi, and Maria Fernanda Vallejos’s PH Propriedad Horizontal (2008), though its reliance on skewed perspective in filming dancers maneuvering along a narrow passageway is a thin trick. The EMPAC winner is Nora (2008), Alla Kovgan and David Hinton’s biographical sketch of the commanding Zimbabwean-born dancer-choreographer Nora Chipaumire. Brief bursts of dance drive much of the narrative, with Chipaumire morphing between the important figures in her life.

A far more comprehensive but, in the end, somehow stunted portrait emerges in Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About (2008), an American Masters documentary of the Broadway and ballet choreographer. Directed by Judy Kinberg and written by Robbins biographer Amanda Vaill, the film is too structurally formulaic to ever truly take off, and nothing here will surprise those familiar with the artist.

Still, the historical footage is delightful, as are the film snippets. Can one ever tire of West Side Story (1961)? Robbins might not be quite the unadulterated genius that this unabashedly celebratory film makes him out to be—but he knew how to make dance shine on the screen.

“Dance on Camera” runs January 7–11 and January 16–17 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York. For showtimes and more information, click here.