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An art of stolen glances

So little dance is readily available, live or recorded, that we're grateful for what we have. Hello, YouTube.

January 06, 2008|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

AIN'T nothin' like the real thing, baby. That's the cry of those in the arts world, arts journalism and educational dance who view the growing library of dance on DVD with disdain.

For them, the scale of live performances and an art based on three-dimensional movement in space can only be degraded by even the highest-tech DVD transcriptions of stage events. A flat, minuscule reduction of dance just isn't dance, they say with a sneer. Can we really understand and appreciate the Sistine Chapel from a postcard?

Of course, these detractors do make an exception for anything conceived for celluloid or magnetic tape: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and his umbrella, Moira Shearer and her red shoes, plus dance documentaries and all those experimental collaborations between choreographers and videographers that turn up each year in the Dance Camera West festival. Those are real films, cinema, an art in itself.

"Dance for Camera 2," a sampling of seven short films, arrives this week from First Run Features ( www.firstrunfeatures.com). It includes pieces in which virtuoso dancing is matched by virtuoso camerawork (e.g., director Kathy Prosser's "Horses Never Lie"), a sex-war duet that ends and depends on the kind of engulfing, realistic flood impossible in a stage piece (Reynir Lyngdal's "Burst"), a solo that makes a child's ordinary movement look heroic (Rosemary Lee's "Boy") and a sly parody of medical documentaries that incorporates dancers but is not essentially movement-driven (Mitchell Rose's "Case Studies From the Groat Center for Sleep Disorders").

These films are all excellent, and the dancing in them needs no apologies. But it would be hard to claim that the greatest dancers or choreographers of the age are represented. So they're almost beside the point for the dance audience as a whole. And so is the argument that dance created or reinterpreted for the film or video camera is the only legitimate dance on DVD.

In any case, contradictions inevitably arise when this hard-line position is invoked. Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing excerpts from "Giselle" in "The Turning Point" and "Dancers" can be considered acceptable because those are feature films. But not Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing the complete "Giselle" as taped by PBS for the "Live From Lincoln Center" TV series and subsequently issued on home video -- that's a "mere" record of a theatrical performance. So what if he's great in it and Natalia Makarova (Giselle) even greater? Ain't nothin' like the real thing . . . .

The argument against reprocessed stage events might be reasonable if we lived in a world of infinite choices where dance is concerned: live dance versus DVD dance, live Baryshnikov versus video Baryshnikov. But even New Yorkers don't live in that world, and in Los Angeles, our pleasure in dance and even our dance literacy are compromised by everything that we can't see in the flesh. And the need to know more and especially see more of this art overrides the rather simplistic perceptual issues raised to demean DVD dance.

Although there's a growing list of contemporary companies and choreographers showcased on DVD, I will focus here on ballet, because in America that art has been misrepresented and arguably stifled by tour presenters and venues focused on a short list of antique solid-gold titles.

You know the routine: A foreign company is told that if it builds an audience through one or two U.S. tours of "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and possibly "Don Quixote" or "La Bayadere," then it can dance its own original work, maybe. But by the time the company finds out that there will be no "then" and no "maybe," the tour presenters are off offering another company the same shuck and jive.

Until that situation changes, we need dance on DVD to show us the true range of international ballet in the 21st century. Right now, the Paris Opera Ballet is widely regarded as the greatest classical ensemble anywhere, not only because of its pristine academic dancing but because of its mastery of the most idiosyncratic contemporary choreography. However, it tours once in a blue moon and then never in the repertory that most excites audiences in its home city -- at least never on Southland stages.

Its DVDs allow us to measure that repertory against what we know of such relatively familiar visitors as American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. At one extreme are the mostly corrupt Paris editions of 19th century classics. But we can also view works by such major living choreographers as Mats Ek and John Neumeier commissioned by the Parisians.

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