In the Thick of It
Space, concludes Frederic Raphael in his memoir of the period of time spent as scribe to Stanley Kubrick, is limited strictly by the rigid frame of the cinema screen. Writing specifically on why he felt it was that a great many filmmakers were unable to effectively replicate the true form and intangibility of dreams (and dream-space) on screen, it was, he felt, one of the difficult tasks to create expansive, indefinable space within a framed medium.
Recently released in London are two notable dance films. Following a lengthy wait since its successful UK premiere at the 2009 London Film Festival is Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse: Le ballet de l’opera de Paris, and at Frith Street Gallery is the late Merce Cunningham’s final dance-on-film work, a feature-length artist’s moving image piece by Tacita Dean, Craneway Event.
The great artistic skill that both Wiseman and Dean display is in the patience that they hold for their subjects. Wiseman’s subject is the Paris Opera Ballet. Similar to previous documentaries, his film is about the institution itself. Though taking far less screen time than an actual dance rehearsal and performance, long stretches are dedicated to the efforts required in fundraising and the minutiae of building the costumery, the cleaning, the refurbishment. Given equivalent care and attention these non-performative elements underpin the level of discipline required in order to successfully stage a world-class dance performance. In this way, the daily performances of artistic director Brigitte Lefevre (the star of the piece, if there is one) are as standardised and stylistic interpolations of expression as any one of the dancer’s movements. The movements are defined – refined through extensive rehearsal – in fact it is the rehearsal that primarily interests both Wiseman and Dean.
Craneway Event was filmed over three days of rehearsals for pieces of Cunningham’s works chosen for staging. Focussing her camera on fixed points, Dean allows the dancers to define their own on-screen space, to learn to be uninhibited by the frame of the lens. Wiseman’s approach is more fluid, using expansive wide shots generously focussed and punctuated with small, almost gestural camera movements. Shooting rehearsals predominantly from behind, he uses reflections from the mirrored walls to open up the audience’s sense of space in relation to the dancer.
In his 1991 book Boundaries in the Mind, psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann identified two descriptions of personal emotional attachment: one thin, one thick. These are manifested in a physical sense by the boundaries people put up when engaging with others. Where some people utilise a thin description and are perhaps not observant of any literal or figurative boundary, others knowingly develop a thick boundary of resistance, are detached and observant, and will stand markedly apart from others, for example. Of human behaviour, a thick description is one that explains by observation the behaviour by its context. What we learn about the dancers, the artistic director, the corps de ballet are gleaned through their own actions, relations and interpretations. A decade ago Nils Tavernier (son of Bertrand), took his camera to the Paris Opera Ballet and received freedom within the institution equal to Wiseman in order to make his documentary Tous pres des etoiles, Les danseurs de le ballet de l’opera de Paris. In direct opposition to Wiseman’s methods, Tavernier’s is a thin boundary and the dancers, his interviewees, speak at length on their work and their emotion personally defines their own structure of learning and what they hope it will lead to. He is sensitive to the dancers, as a group and individually, but his camera finds it difficult to keep just enough distance – the end result being that Tavernier’s film feels more directed than a documentary should.
Similar to the work of Edgar Degas, Wiseman’s and Dean’s figures are largely anonymous. The filmmakers relax the boundary between subject and background. Robert Rosenblum notes that the effect of Impressionism is that “…the (work)…resembles… a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance.” (1989). Dean especially with her use of fixed point camerawork and affected lighting presents a sense of depth to what is a flat object (as highlighted above, Wiseman does it with mirrors).
Wiseman’s and Dean’s dancers are abstracted forms, emphasising an arched back, a foot en pointe or a hand curling up from the shoulder. The filmmaker’s focus on the dancer’s rehearsal period culminates at the end of every scene with the memory of a collection of repeated poses and postures. It is this preoccupation with form, and the context of form, that reinforces the notion that the role of the documentary filmmaker (as essayist, as film artist, as onlooker) will have above all else (talent included) patience because in the here-and-now (or, conversely, there-and-then) he or she is better best ignored.