THE DANCEMAKERS (COMPLETE SET)
Institutional rights: $239.70 (full set) or $39.95 each
Canada has often been careless with its cultural archives. For example, there are no tapes of the earliest Stratford or Shaw Festival productions, and, so, very little means of really knowing how those productions looked in performance—not so much from the point of view of design but more from the angles of acting, directing, and choreography. Similarly, in dance, where and when do our archives really begin? There is an enormous body of dance work in Canadian history, but not much of this is preserved in a viable way for dance students, historians, and other dancers—at least not in a way that uses film as a creative medium for capturing the motives and shapes of the dances. The cinematic approach allows the camera to focus on a piece in such a way as to create an illusion of a live experience, and to make it the closest thing to a direct rather than vicarious one. In this regard, Moze Mossanen’s six DVDs (collectively entitled The Dancemakers series) are an important, useful step in incarnating some classic or near-classic Canadian dance pieces by finding a context or visual landscape for each dance and for delving into the backgrounds of the choreographers and their processes of creation.
Mossanen is celebrated as one of the country’s pre-eminent directors of film dramas. Many of his works have won awards and been seen around the world, and his drive to combine film and drama took shape after his studies at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, and the Actors Studio in New York. His first breakthrough was with a dramatic short entitled Illegal Acts, but from a dance perspective his first significant work was a 1983 film adaptation of Constantin Patsalas’s Canciones, a dance created for the National Ballet of Canada. It was clear that Mossanen did not subscribe to the naïve school of thought that was satisfied to just let a camera focus frontally on a dance, without any rethinking of camera positions and movements, set design, or lighting. Buoyed by the success of this filmed dance, Mossanen decided that he could work with some of his favourite choreographers in recreating some of their signature pieces under a single umbrella. Hence the idea for the Dancemakers series that met with the approval of TVOntario. Eventually he gained the support of both Telefilm Canada and the Ontario Film Development Corporation, and he got his series of six half-hour films.
His choices are beyond controversy: Constantin Patsalas, David Earle, Danny Grossman, Christopher House, Ginette Laurin, and James Kudelka. It is possible, of course, to argue for the inclusion of others—Serge Bennathan, Judy Jarvis, Margie Gillis, Peggy Baker, Robert Desrosiers, Claudia Moore, Yvonne Ng, Matash Mrozewski, et cetera—but surely these choreographer-dancers can be added in subsequent sets as an ongoing series. What a critic has to remember is that the first set represents Mossanen’s personal favourites from the 80s, and they are not thin milk. The Greek-born Patsalas, who began his career in Germany before joining the National Ballet of Canada in 1972, was a prolific choreographer with a wide variety of themes. He used ballet technique as his primary discipline but was a mini-auteur in the sense that he designed many costumes and sets and had strong opinions about dance lighting. Though born in San Francisco, Danny Grossman came to Canada from New York, and he brought with him a muscular, athletic style of movement that could look dangerous as well as airy or exuberant. The others are Canadian-born, and their craft, though exposed to international trends and has yielded distinctive vocabularies that are stamped by the choreographers’ specific aesthetics and sensibilities. For instance, David Earle (one of the co-founders of Toronto Dance Theatre) is not preoccupied with looking modern but with linking up with the most urgent impulsions to dance. In other words, he is concerned with the timeless element in people and with putting his dancers in touch with their emotional centres. Christopher House, though often overly cerebral of late, shows in his DVD his geometry or higher mathematics of dance, even when he is minimalist. Ginette Laurin combines gymnastics, acrobatics, classical, and modern in a continuous kinesis without imposing a pre-determined choreography on her dancers. And James Kudelka creates an exciting, pictorially beautiful mass movement that sweeps a viewer along hypnotically to an emotional involvement.
Mossanen has selected specific dance pieces shrewdly, bolstering his programs with Veronica Tennant’s expert introductions and snippets of interviews of contemporary colleagues of the choreographers under examination. These interviews strengthen the background for each dance and provide a glimpse into the process that went into the creation of many of the dances. However, some of the DVDs do indicate that Mossanen was not always perfect but was slowly learning how to combine film with dance. In the Patsalas Canciones segment, for example, the camera sometimes loses a dancer in a frame and then cuts away to mezzo-soprano Janice Taylor, causing the viewer’s gaze to be distracted from the dance. However, this lapse is not frivolous; it does have an aesthetic reason behind it, although one to which I do not subscribe: Mossanen shows visually how Patsalas uses the voice as the motivation for capturing the flavour or texture of the Spanish music. In any case, it is Patsalas’s choreography and the quartet of dancers (Sabina Allemann, Veronica Tennant, David Nixon, and Kevin Pugh) that ultimately transcend any focal flaws, with the arabesques growing larger, the feeling of the movements stronger, and the shifts in dynamics creating shimmering moods.
The DVDs mix small and large dance pieces, offering a substantiation of the choreographers’ reputations. For instance, House’s Animated Shorts (where movement is contrapuntal to Michael J. Baker’s rapid music) displays the choreographer working out the steps without any historical burden or academic sterility. His Schubert Dances exhibits the seeming weightlessness of his leaps and landings. And then there is the masterly Glass Houses, with a score by Ann Southam. This dance has balanced and symmetrical lineal arrangements that dissolve, then resolve into others, with an intricate play upon speed and variation in tempi. Similarly, the Danny Grossman DVD offers a range of moods and styles. Nobody’s Business (set to the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Joe Turner) is bold, humorous, light-footed, and shimmering with ease of movement as Grossman presents two chorus lines—one female, one male—one with top-half costumes, the other with bottom-half ones. The women flex their muscles, while the men act like feminized pin-ups. But the irrepressible gaiety is set aside in another Grossman master-work, Endangered Species, a strong political piece about tyranny, persecution, and destruction, danced with stark, sharp, staccato movements. Expressionistic costumes, décor, and lighting consort with a score (“Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings”) to make a dramatic statement that burns the stage. This piece finds its closest affinity in David Earle’s Sacra Conversazione, a daringly contemplative piece that encompasses religious and epic themes of history. Choreographed in 1984 for the Banff Festival of the Arts, it commemorates the radiance of the body in its swooping energy, concentrated intensities, and choral movements. This piece has been taken to every continent, and it has moved audiences everywhere—sometimes to tears—because of its power and theme of oppression. An American critic (Janet Martineau) has beautifully expressed this dance’s special character: “As the music implores the heavens, so do the bodies. As grief sounds through the notes, the bodies move as if pained beyond endurance. And as the music swells, the dancers sway to and fro.” Earle’s vocabulary of supplication (arms outstretched and upward, sinkings to the floor but little floor work at first) moves into an area of spiritual regeneration, so the piece ends with an exaltation rather than with sheer affliction.
As the Grossman DVD suggests, the set has lighter pieces, and this fact is extended by the DVD on Ginette Laurin, whose sharp, witty, intense pieces reveal an amalgam of elements (gymnastic, acrobatic, classical, modern, bilingual text). Crash Landing, performed in leotards and running shoes, is filled with backward dives and declensions, fluttery suspensions, barrel rolls, and leaps, with agile lifts and continuous movement. However, her dancers are required to speak, act, and dance, which sometimes leads to ineffectively flat moments as when Kenneth Gould speaks rather like an inexperienced actor. “I have a crush on you, sweetie-pie” comes out sounding dull rather than comic or romantic. Nevertheless, Laurin allows her performers to feel creative. Her Full House is more effective because it brings together choreographed movement and gesture in an entertainment that is surrealistically humorous in a theatrical manner. The frame is a beauty contest by and in a shallow swimming pool, with spectators gathered casually poolside. Three young ladies (each with a particular hair colour) perform a parody of cheesecake as voyeurs lounge in deck chairs. The second movement is a duet to a fast tango rhythm, then an Apache dance with the male in full suit and tie. The third sequence is a mixed gender relay of dives and long slides in the pool, but the fourth is a dramatic trope, consonant with the grief occasioned by JFK’s assassination. The charming self-contained world of the pool gets invaded by the external world, and the piece becomes a sombre requiem that totally contradicts the first three sections of the dance. Fascinating, memorable stuff.
The artistic epitome (for my taste) is James Kudelka’s In Paradisum, a four-part ballet about death and grief, based on Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, that put Kudelka prominently on the dance map. Dedicated to the memory of his mother, and performed by nine dancers who are all feminized by their long, split skirts, it is a sensitive exploration of its themes, without being a private work. The meditativeness issues out of an outpouring of choreographic invention that carries the piece beyond the particularity of Kudelka’s personal grief into a wider creative experience. The first section has a scattered energy with its rapid pivots, swirls, declensions, and elevations; the second a more frantic one within a circle of prostate bodies, though there is a breakthrough near the end; and the third details a community of shared experience. Finally, the fourth brings an acceptance of death through a sense of entropy, with the tempo slowing down and the principal soloist’s body describing longer lines. The New York Times described In Paradisum as “a maelstrom of anguish, grief and acceptance.”
All the DVDs are in colour—though some of them have a muddy look because of filters and natural age—so they allow us to get a sense of the scenic and lighting design that informed the dance pieces, further memorialized by excellent photo galleries by Cylla von Tiedemann. What they lack is substantial commentary or mediation by dance experts. The short interviews are good but I often felt as if too much was being scanted or passed over, and though it is always better for a viewer to make up his or her own mind, it would be of great assistance to dance students to have expert commentary—not preceding or accompanying the performances but after their completion. As matters stand, however, the DVDs offer an electronic Teacher’s Guide prepared by Janet Millar Grant and Gabby Kamino. This includes choreographer biographies and has five main components: Art in Context; Art Types and Styles; Elements of Construction (a consideration of the impact of decisions about styles and techniques); Aesthetics (or criteria for evaluating dance); and Across the Curriculum (which is to say, connections made to other subject areas). While carefully planned around clear organizational principles and with over 100 suggested lessons and educational activities, this Guide is sometimes marked by an unrealistic but typically pedagogic approach, requiring students to imagine that they are the choreographers under study in order to invent movement or design ideas in this context. Imitation is a high form of flattery, indeed, but it can also be detrimental to artistic freedom and invention. Moreover, artistic genius can hardly be pretended. It exists with autonomy of its own—as the DVDs demonstrate amply and gorgeously.