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PERSPECTIVE

Factory Outlet: Dance as Blue-Collar Solace

In three new movies, members of the working class find performance an avenue of escape.

October 15, 2000|LEWIS SEGAL | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Feature films that set the body-centered priorities of dance against an unyielding industrial landscape are nothing new: "Flashdance" exploited that playoff 15 years ago. But in this month alone, three very different films in what we can call the factory-dance genre have reached American screens, each of them depicting characters who find the act of performance an escape, if only in fantasy, from an intolerably harsh environment.

As in the hugely successful "The Full Monty," the presence of a grimly realistic working-class milieu is central to the childhood ballet fable "Billy Elliot" (from England), the tap musical "Bootmen" (from Australia) and the operatic melodrama "Dancer in the Dark" (set in America but with a perspective distinctive to its Swedish/Icelandic creative team).

Labor troubles in the first film, imminent layoffs in the second and a punishing, even dangerous, work schedule in the third create a devastating impact on the central family relationships of each story. With factory life as the only alternative for three sets of trapped characters, dance becomes an essential expression of the human spirit in the face of the industrial world's most oppressive and dehumanizing urban blight.

For 11-year-old Billy Elliot, however, a bitter strike at the local coal mine matters less than the problem of making everyone believe he's going to boxing lessons instead of ballet classes. But his emotionally burned-out father and rebellious brother balance the upbeat whimsy of Billy's story with the hard facts of the strikers' struggle to survive.

Coincidentally, "Bootmen" also features a numb widower losing control of his two sons: one of them (like Billy's brother) on the wrong side of the law and the other (like Billy) an emerging dancer, though in this case a young adult named Sean. Here, too, the bottom-line reality of a factory town (in this case, one dominated by a steel mill) conditions the men's lives.

It also conditions "Dancer in the Dark." Here, a Czech immigrant named Selma is nearly blind but intent on keeping her job at the local tool-and-die factory in order to save enough money for her 10-year-old son's operation. Her devoted friend, Kathy, functions as a sibling in her story, taking her to movie musicals and describing the action on-screen.

In turn, Selma invents fantasy musicals of her own in moments of crisis--turning the facts of an increasingly hopeless existence into Hollywood-style song and dance a la the British TV series "Pennies From Heaven" and the American feature film based on it.

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As in "Pennies From Heaven," Fred Astaire serves as a touchstone in each of these films--mentioned as a key to Selma's character in "Dancer in the Dark," corrupted by a dancer imitating his style in "Bootmen," and glimpsed in top hat, white tie and tails in "Billy Elliot" to help define Billy's initial image of dancing.

You can also find glints of Astaire in the perfectly dreadful yet sweetly endearing audition routine that Billy performs at key junctures in his story--a routine that represents just about all the formal dancing that choreographer Peter Darling supplies in the film. For even though Billy grows up to be the charismatic Adam Cooper of the Matthew Bourne "Swan Lake," the tight narrative focus avoids conventional performance diversions, however satisfying, in order to depict dancing as personally transformative: physical discipline leading to hard-won self-realization.

It is this sense of self-realization that makes dance such a powerful counterforce to the industrial status quo in each film--a life-affirming process that becomes far more decisive as a plot element than any actions by the nominal love interests assigned Billy, Sean and Selma. Young Billy, in particular, lights up whenever he dances, and the film's field of view widens at these moments to encompass his expanded perspective.

However, when dance eventually invades or impacts the mine/mill/factory world of these films, disaster looms in the workplace (sometimes only temporarily). Selma loses her job after a lapse of attention during a dance-fantasy causes a costly accident. Sean screws up on television, causing his father to suffer his colleagues' ridicule at the mill, and Billy's dad nearly turns scab to pay for his son's ballet lessons.

Indeed, you might conclude that each of these films depicts dance as a kind of underground religion (though "Dancer in the Dark" is no less reverential about song), because looking into the gleaming eyes of their protagonists, you're watching something much closer to classic film treatments of the uncomprehending, fatally disruptive Joan of Arc or Bernadette of Lourdes than the sweaty, sexy, worldly leads in "Flashdance," "Dirty Dancing" or "Saturday Night Fever."

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