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Collaborators in Conflict

PBS cameras caught the creativity and the clashes that resulted when Pilobolus dancers and children's author Maurice Sendak joined forces on a performance piece

September 15, 2002|CHRIS PASLES

If great art has to "draw blood," as Maurice Sendak maintains, the first cuts are made in the skin and psyche of the creator.

Or creators, as in the case of Sendak, Pilobolus Dance Theater and a work called "A Selection."

In 1998, members of Pilobolus invited the children's book illustrator-author and writer-director Arthur Yorinks, his partner in a children's theater company called Night Kitchen, to be their first outside collaborators. Then they invited PBS filmmaker Mirra Banks to document the process.

The idea was to create a work that could share a program with Hans Krasa's 40-minute children's opera, "Brundibar," which was performed at the Nazi show camp Terezin in the 1930s and which Night Kitchen will produce in 2003. In the end, the collaboration resulted in a stand-alone work, and a film that shows just how contentious creativity can be. Banks' "Last Dance" will have its West Coast premiere next Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center, as part of the exhibition "Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak in His Own Words and Pictures."

Looking back at the project, Sendak says he was initially thrilled at the prospect of working with the 30-year-old collective. "I had long wanted to work with dancers again," he said. In 1983, Sendak had done "Nutcracker" with Pacific Northwest Ballet--"one of the best experiences I had had."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction
Filmmaker's name--Mirra Bank is the PBS filmmaker who made "Last Dance," an account of the collaboration between children's book illustrator-author Maurice Sendak and the Pilobolus Dance Theater. Her last name is misspelled in an article about the project in today's Sunday Calendar.

At a point about midway through the process, however, one of Pilobolus' three directors, Jonathan Wolken, will call Sendak's input "not useful at all," and the 73-year-old artist will reply, with the camera rolling, "I feel like I was hit with a Scud missile."

"When you start a collaboration like this, you never know what's going to happen," Banks says now. "In every aspect of making this work, there were differences of opinion."

As the film begins, Sendak and Yorinks arrive at Pilobolus' Connecticut studios with a vision. Sendak wants to tell a story about the Holocaust, and he envisions a train station, people left waiting, and a villain who will seduce them and lead some of them to their deaths.

He's eloquent, but Wolken and the other Pilobolus directors--Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy--and the six Pilobolus dancers are visibly uncomfortable. They were looking for sets and costumes from Sendak, and the rest is a little vague. They try to explain their process: generating dances through improvisational, abstract movement sessions, not a storyboard and a plot.

The 83-minute film follows the dancing and negotiations over eight months, from November 1998 to June 1999. Shortly after filming ended, "A Selection" was performed in New York City; the New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff called it riveting. Little did she know.

On film, the dancers improvise, with and without the company directors, with and without Sendak--experimenting with the basic idea he has handed them. When Sendak is there, he's there: interpreting and reacting to the movement, spinning out more narrative explanations, showing his costume sketches (evocations of Anne Frank and other historical figures), drawing grotesque faces directly onto the front and back of dancer Otis Cook's white unitard. Banks occasionally cuts away to weave in historical footage or individual interviews.

Ideas and movement images slowly coalesce even as the collaborators continue to argue about the plot, the title of the work, the nudity that Sendak insists must be there to stand for what happened to concentration camp victims just before they were killed. For the most part, he prevails.

At times things get testy. "This is not useful to us," says Wolken, who becomes Sendak's prime antagonist. "This is useful to no one."

"I feel bumped off the rails," Sendak says during another tense moment.

The filmmaker took it all in uneasily. "I really try to be in a sense a blank slate in situations like this," Banks says now. "I try to be responsive to what's actually happening. This was a long and complicated process. I had to have certain hopes. I didn't want this project to fall apart."

Ultimately, Wolken says by phone from Connecticut, both he and Sendak feed off conflict.

"We were open to virtually anything," he says, thinking back over the way Pilobolus began the process.

"Maurice came in with more of a definite idea, clearly he solidified something faster, differently. But it wasn't a problem. That's the given when you work with different collaborators. That does not mean that one simply accepts."

Sendak is philosophical as well. "There was more conflict than I anticipated," he says.

"But there always is in a project that includes a number of people from various disciplines walking a tightrope. This has more contention than I like or than I anticipated."

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