Moviemakers Put Motion Back in Pictures

By Wisner, Heather | Dance Magazine, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Moviemakers Put Motion Back in Pictures


Wisner, Heather, Dance Magazine


after a conspicuous absence, dance has bounded back to the big screen. This season, filmgoers will be seeing more dance involving big-name talent than they've seen in years, and unlike the Turning Point/All That Jazz era--arguably the last memorable boom time for dance on film since MGM musicals--it won't be limited to the dance-film genre.

In Billy Elliot, for example, an English coal miner's son takes refuge in ballet lessons as a bitter strike ravages his town. Spike Lee lampoons the media in Bamboozled, which concerns a TV executive who recruits a homeless tap dancer and launches a national minstrel-show craze. The dance numbers become increasingly elaborate in Lars von Trier's Dancing in the Dark as a rural factory worker escapes her imploding existence by retreating into a musical-styled fantasy world. A mute Manhattan club dancer attracts a scientist's attention in The Dancer, and innovative tap talent propels a steelworker out of Australia's industrial Newcastle in Dein Perry's Bootmen.

Only A Time for Dancing, based on the true tale of a teenage dancer stricken with cancer, and last spring's ballet-school vehicle, Center Stage, are set in the dance world and might rightly be called dance films: Most directors and choreographers use the Hollywood-preferred term "films with dancing in them." But more dance is more dance, and its appearance raises important questions, namely: What brought this on? What will sustain it? And for how long?

"It's OK to do dance and musicals again," affirms Dancer in the Dark choreographer Vince Paterson. "It's not as unusual as it was fifteen years ago." Paterson, a longtime video choreographer whose work includes Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video and Madonna's "Blonde Ambition" tour, credits a warmer reception for dance to its greater visibility overall, through the emergence of street dance, a greater number of men entering the field and the democratizing effects of MTV, commercials and sitcoms. "You rarely see a video without dancing in it," he says. "Dance is no longer just for the educated or the wealthy--it has entered the homes of middle America in ways that haven't been seen since Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. Drew Carey [whose sitcom occasionally features dance sequences] has become the Fred Astaire of the couch potato."

It was Paterson's music-video experience that attracted von Trier's attention; he wanted to work with Paterson enough that he agreed to drop his original vision of tap dancing, which Paterson doesn't do. Paterson then began studying how his leads, essentially non-dancers, moved. "I spent some time watching Bjork's physicality," he says. "She moves like a synthesis of a little child and a marionette." Working from the point of view of Bjork's character, Selma, Paterson created a mishmash of movement styles for the actors and a cast of 200 Scandinavian professional dancers whose experience ranged from hip-hop to ballet. "I got inside Selma's head," he says. "Rather than [the choreography] being Vince Paterson, I let it be looser in terms of cleanliness and precision. In a pedestrian mind, the choreography isn't `left hand first, right hand second', it's just `throw their hands up in the air!'"

Though it may look improvised--and much of the acting was--the dancing is choreographed beat for beat specifically to look like the work of an amateur. "Critics have called it sloppy or unrehearsed--they don't get it," says Paterson, who mixed classical, modern and old musical styles and set them to the industrial clank of machinery. "It's an emotion-driven style of movement. There's a big piece on a train: it's sentimental, so it's balletic. There's another part with factory machines as percussion--it has the craziness of Mary Poppins ... it's very different from anything anyone's ever seen. This was not the intent, but it busted open the door to new musicals." If dance is to maintain its cinematic foothold, says Paterson, directors should be exploring modern musical styles rather than remaking old favorites.

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