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Video Instruction--Is It Worth the Price of a Tape?

June 19, 1988|CHRIS PASLES

From belly dancing to tap, from ballet to the hula, dance instruction on home video is increasingly available.

You can take ballet class with Natalia Makarova or Fernando Bujones, learn modern dance from Merce Cunningham, jazz from Gus Giordano or tap from Henry Le Tang. There's even an expensive four-cassette "Video Dictionary of Classical Ballet" featuring luminaries from American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet and New York City Ballet.

What are they for? Can you really learn to dance from them? And how do major people in the educational dance field feel about their advantages and limitations? Here's a sampling of some notable releases:

Eight-hundred classical steps (numbered and indexed in an accompanying booklet) are performed by Merrill Ashley, Denise Jackson, Kevin McKenzie and Georgina Parkinson on the four-cassette "Video Dictionary of Classical Ballet" (Kultur, 270 minutes, Hi-Fi, stereo. $199. Information: (800) 458-5887).

" 'The Dictionary' is intended as a collector's item, as a teaching tool and as a reference work, designed for students and teachers," says Dennis Hedlund, president of Kultur. "We made it because we realized there were so many dance students around the country and, for that matter, around the world who needed to have some kind of way to practice at home.

"We tried to come up with a guide to every ballet movement: The proper placement of each ballet position, from A to Z. . . . We've numbered each of the frames, so you can fast-forward to whatever position you want to see, and we've included a booklet so that you can follow along.

"It's reliable. It's concise. It's accurate. But there's nothing like being in a room and having an instructor methodically show you what you should do."

Stanley Holden, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet and an esteemed teacher in Los Angeles, agrees:

"The most important thing for me," he said, "is that everyone, including Baryshnikov, needs a classroom and a teacher because dancers can slip in their technique and not know they're doing it. I can't imagine anyone going to a videotape and saying, 'That's what I'm doing wrong. . . .'

"I don't know what the value (of a videotape such as this) is, really, to put it into a nutshell," Holden said. "It's executed beautifully technically, but you couldn't make a dancer from it."

"The tapes are really an educational tool," says Karen Carreras, administrator of the film and video Dept. at the (Merce) Cunningham Dance Foundation, which issues two videotapes: "Cunningham Dance Technique: Elementary Level" (35 minutes) and "Cunningham Dance Technique: Intermediate Level" (60 minutes).

(The first costs $200, the second $300. If purchased together, they are $200 each. Information: (212) 255-3130.)

"You would use them along with taking classes," Carreras said, "along with knowing the basic vocabulary of how your body looks or feels. They aren't for the novice thinking of a way to exercise."

Instructional commentary is by Cunningham himself, who appears as one of several teachers. Movements are demonstrated by members of his company and people taking classes at his studios in New York.

Carreras says that she aims the tapes toward institutional buyers--universities, colleges and public libraries--and people who are interested in the technique but can't come to New York for first-hand exposure.

"The technique has to be shown. A book is not going to do it for you." she said. "It has to be visually presented."

Los Angeles-based modern-dance choreographer Bella Lewitzky agrees: Movement cannot be learned from a book.

"To try to translate an exercise from a book, even with figures, you would have to have the patience of Job. It's just too much," Lewitzky said. "Without question a tape is head and shoulders above a book."

However, Lewitzky sees few such tapes to their finish.

"I usually turn them off," she said. "They're usually made badly. . . . Lighting, spacing, execution are very often questionable.

"(The Cunningham tapes) are impeccable, well-produced, however. You can see everything Merce wants you to see. . . . But in 60 minutes, it's not really terribly possible to define a whole technique."

Lewitzky feels that while the tapes could be "very valuable for teachers," she doubted that "a beginner could pick (the technique) up.

"It would be terrifically confusing," she said. "It does require that you have knowledge beforehand for it to be really effective."

"If you have a trained dancer's eye, you will pick up a lot of things in the video," says Gus Giordano of his "Jazz Dance Class: A Jazz Technique Class with Gus Giordano" (All Night Moving Pictures, 60 minutes, Hi-Fi, stereo, $59.95. Information: (312) 866-9442).

"Dancers' eyes must be trained, especially in jazz, to follow the style. It's like going to a museum and looking at a painting, picking out details."

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