Thoughts on Dance Films

To me one of the greatest challenges of shooting a documentary on ballet is how to portray the dancing. It’s clear that one cannot make a piece about ballerinas without showing them dance. The problem, I have found, is that recording a performance is not interesting. Ballet is meant to be seen live, sitting in the audience. I watched every dance film I could get my hands on to decide what works and what does not work. My favorite documentaries are the two Frederick Wiseman films, Ballet (1995) and La Danse (2009). Most of the others (I won’t name names) I felt were not that well crafted, though essentially they had the same problems as the films that inspired me. I also adore (though apparently I am one of the few, even among Altman fans) Robert Altman’s The Company (2003) and even though it is fiction his goal was to give the illusion of a documentary.

Though these three films are superior to most films on ballet; they are still flawed. To me the problems lie in interweaving the performances with the story. The more I watched these films the more I found myself forwarding through the performances. I would love to watch these performances in person, of course, but on film they seemed ho-hum. The moments I could watch again and again were the rehearsals were you could actually see the dancers working. How they fixed mistakes and focused on the smallest of steps. The little moments that perplexed them and most importantly how everyone worked together and relied on one another. Still, I felt I needed to give the feel of a complete performance, thus my use of the Super 8 film.

There are some exceptions to this flawed performance theory of mine: Center Stage (Hytner 2000) and Dancers (Ross 1987). While the story and acting leave much to be desired; the performances in both of these films are exceptional. The best part, hands down, of Center Stage is the dance at the end. The rest is sort of clichéd and teenage-y. Why are these performances so much better than the others? Because the camera does not stay in the audience, but instead becomes part of the action (for instance at the end of Center Stage when Jodi suddenly has on red shoes). You can do this in a fiction film, but during a live performance the audience would probably not appreciate it if I jumped up on stage to get close-ups and various angles on the action. Therefore, documentaries don’t really have a choice, but to shoot from the audience (or the wings).

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Super 8 Teaser

There is something magical that happens when you watch a dancer perform; being in the moment together in a theatre allows a connection that is hard to reproduce with a camera. My solution was to shoot dance sequences of each dancer, using Super 8 film, outside of both the stage and the studio. By creating these sequences I hope that viewers will be able to connect with the core of each dancer through a cinematic medium. When filming we didn’t plan out any special choreography, the dancers just did what came to them in the moment. Therefore, it is their own movement and inspiration, and hopefully, as you watch it you will see their individuality and allure as dancers.

I chose to shoot on handheld Super 8 because I liked the juxtaposition of using an imperfect medium to shoot those who have spent their lives trying to achieve perfection. I used both reversal and negative film, thus some of the shots are extremely contrast-y while others are more evenly exposed. In the final film each dancer will have their own sequence, but in this teaser I chose to show a few images of all three. I may use the combined images at the end of the documentary as well, but I am still working out the ending of the film in my head and have a few different ideas. We’ll see what works.

The music is from my master’s thesis film, Swan Quarter (2003), and I chose to re-purpose it for the teaser because I think it is very beautiful and I don’t have music for the film yet, so I needed something I had on hand. Enjoy this Super 8 teaser!

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Beginning to Edit

A little over two weeks ago I moved from North Carolina to Denver, Colorado. I grew up in Boulder, CO so it is not a completely new change for me. I was, and still am, worried about making a documentary about North Carolina dancers while living 1500 miles away from my subject, but sometimes you have to be able to go with the flow.

So now we are here and I am a month behind my editing schedule. Honestly, I am more than a month behind because in my original schedule I planned on being finished shooting after about three months, which would have been May 2011. In reality I finished up just before I left, literally shooting a promo with Alessandra four days before the moving truck arrived at my house. I have over forty hours worth of footage that I am hoping to carve into a 95-110 minute piece.

It’s easier to begin editing a narrative piece because you have a script in front of you and everything is already in order. Theoretically, you already know the beginning and the end; you may already have storyboards depicting the order of the shots. Of course, I think editing a narrative gets harder as you go along because it can become restrictive there are many more “rules” that you have to follow to maintain the suspension of disbelief required to make the film work. You can break said rules, but you have to have a reason or a motivation to really make it work. Sometimes finding that motivation becomes difficult because the script and the footage can reach an impasse. For instance an actress may choose to be stoic when the script called for her to cry. This could point the character and, thus, the story in a new direction.

A documentary can be harder to begin editing because you have to find the story in all the footage that you’ve shot before you can really sit down in front of the computer. It isn’t as clearly defined because when you are shooting you never know exactly what will occur in front of the camera. There is no script and you have to hope you get what you need to make a story work. It is very easy to make a documentary subject driven, in that you are simply showing what happened instead of building characters with distinct arcs that come together to create a story.

Lately I have to remind myself that I am not as far behind as I feel. No matter where I ago, whether or not my computer is in front of me I am thinking about this film, these characters, and their story. So, hopefully, next week I will sit down in front of my computer and it will all come together.

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Documentary Aesthetic

Just thought I would share one of my posts from DIY Dancer here as well. For the next few weeks I will be profiling the dancers. I am hoping to post more here in the future as well, but I am preparing to move to Denver in the next couple weeks and have been extremely busy. One of the things I am busy with is running down to Charlotte to wrap shooting for the documentary.


In preparing for this film I watched every film (narrative or documentary) that I could get my hands about ballet. I find that there is almost always an issue making the performances and the storyline work together. The performances always take us out of the story and they are not integrated well. The only time it works is when the filmmaker really brings the camera into the space of the dance instead of simply placing it in the audience.  A good (and well known) example of this is the final dance in Center Stage (2000) where the implication is that we are watching from the audience, but in reality the camera is on stage with the dancers (or, in actuality, on a soundstage with shots of an audience cut in). The problem with a documentary is that you cannot be on stage during a performance without ruining the performance.

So somehow I had to think of a way to integrate dancing (beyond rehearsals) into the film in a manner that engages the camera more than simply filming the dancers under the proscenium. Since dancers spend their careers seeking perfection I liked the idea of using an imperfect medium to portray their dancing. In this vein I shot the dancers using my Super 8 camera. This is a small format movie film camera; the model I used was made in the late 1960s. Kodak still makes the film (fingers crossed that it stays that way, bankruptcy be damned). These cameras are imperfect, in a sense, because you can’t really control them or predict exactly how your shots will look. Unpredictable. The intangible is what makes the world beautiful. It’s why Margot Fonteyn is one of the greatest dancers, even though her feet were not perfect. To complement this I used a Holga and a Diana camera for the still images, which will hopefully be used in posters and such.

Hopefully, I will have a poster ready soon. That is one of those things I think I can accomplish while moving. It’s hard to really edit because I have to pack up so many things and my house is chaotic. We’ll see how it goes.

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DIY Dancer

Starting this week I am also going to do weekly posts at DIY Dancer. I will do different posts here and there so be sure to check it out. This week has still been pretty calm in regards to the film. I am getting ready to move to Denver and it is taking up all my time, but this week I am meeting up with all the dancers for our final shoot.

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Wrapping Up

This week has really been about scheduling. Not too interesting. As I was reviewing my footage and still photographs I realized I have nothing of all three dancers together. For instance it would be nice to have a picture with the three of the dancers together on the homepage of the website. Thus, I have spent this week trying to find a time that works for all four of us. It actually wasn’t that hard, but we won’t be shooting for two weeks! And, I’m guessing it will be our final shoot. It doesn’t feel sad as of now, but let’s see how I feel in two weeks.

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Melissa and the Tutus

This past Saturday I went down to Charlotte to shoot the final interview. It was one of those days were everything seems to be going wrong: Melissa’s car battery died, I couldn’t find the GPS at 6:30 in the morning, and it was pouring down rain. Luckily, it was all worth it when we walked into the costume shop to find stacks of tutus everywhere. It felt like walking into a dreamland. How amazing it must be to unpack all those magnificent costumes. Not quite as amazing as getting to actually wear one, but a close second.  Well, maybe not too close. Melissa has been cast as the Lilac Fairy and she is very excited. It will be amazing to see her dance such a famous role and I believe she will really be able to make it her own. It was also the first time she saw her tutu (she is getting fitted for it sometime this week) and we made sure to position behind her so that it would be in the background of her close-up.

Having to cart around, in the pouring rain, all the equipment needed to shoot an interview did make me feel relieved to be shooting the last one. It is so much easier to grab one tripod and one camera and head out for a shoot. Once you start doubling everything and it is just you setting everything up, it becomes that much more worrisome. Luckily, the cameras have only been used by me these last few months so all of the settings have stayed as I programmed them, which helps immensely.

It has been almost a year now that I have been in production for this documentary and what I have left to shoot will barely fill the hour long tape. It seems as though this moment would never come and while I am relieved to not have to drive to Charlotte at a moments notice; it is also a little bittersweet. It has been quite spectacular to be allowed into such a special world and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, it is not over yet, not by a long shot, but as I move into post-production everything will be different. I look forward to the new phase of production as much as I am savoring the last.

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