Moving Stories: A festival of new dance films from American Ballet Theatre

September 30 & October 1, 2020

David Mead

Premiered over two nights and hosted by Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s Moving Stories film festival featured eight short films that showcased the creativity of the company’s dancers. The festival name is apt, not so much because each film is a story, but more because they all in some way reflect the story of the times we find ourselves in.

The idea was to give the choreographer-filmmakers and the participating dancers a creative challenge as an antidote to the loss of what looks like being at least a year of lost performances. It was not a surprise to find that most of the results reflect the times and its challenges, the creative process clearly providing an outlet through which the artists could deal with some of the emotions and confusion we are all experiencing.

Moving Stories from American Ballet TheatrePhoto courtesy American Ballet Theatre
Moving Stories from American Ballet Theatre
Photo courtesy American Ballet Theatre

The dancer-filmmakers rose to challenge well, the films showing another, unexpected side to their creativity. The varied programme included the quirky and humorous, through deeply thoughtful, to the out and out classically balletic. In an added plus, each screening was followed by a roundtable discussion in which the creators talked about their inspirations and personal challenges.

In the opening Transonata, former soloist Alexandre Hammoudi drops us right in the middle of lockdown with shots of a barriered and deserted Lincoln Center. Emptiness is everywhere, not only in the walkways but also in dancer Skylar Brandt’s eyes as she stares into space trying, desperately trying to understand.

Hammoudi goes on to explore the idea of two individuals apart from each other but longing to share the same space again. For dancers such as Brandt and Herman Cornejo, that space is the stage, but the same notion can apply to many people. As the film switches constantly from one to the other, their partner is pictured as a vision or a thought. A sense of loneliness pervades. It ends unresolved as he goes to ever so gently hold his still absent partner. It was a fine start.

Eric Tamm in his Le Tré CortegéPhoto courtesy ABT
Eric Tamm in his Le Tré Cortegé
Photo courtesy American Ballet Theatre

The whole project may have been an antidote to the pause dancers are experiencing, but Eric Tamm’s Le Tré Cortegé provides some much-needed medicine to the usual downbeat offerings that the times has spawned. While still inspired by his time in quarantine, it’s sunny, quirky, even silly in places. He may be locked down but there are still jobs to be done in the yard; and what fun Tamm has fun doing them, even finding time for a short pas de deux with a rake. The eccentric film effects come thick and fast with plenty of stop-motion, speeded up film, reversed film and more. It is over the top, but it’s also impossible not to smile. Even Tamm’s cute cat and dog get bit parts.

An exploration of his personal feelings during lockdown, Alone Together by Duncan Lyle takes us to two adjoining apartments, the shared wall being the only thing the occupants have in common. Beyond that, they are people you don’t know and lives you don’t know. The film may only be six minutes but Lyle doesn’t rush, giving the strong Courtney Shealy plenty of time to wonder, imagine, what is going on and what lies next door.

Perception by Zhong-Jing FangPhoto courtesy ABT
Perception by Zhong-Jing Fang
Photo courtesy American Ballet Theatre

Perception by Zhongjing Fang has plenty of fine dancers in many fine settings, the choreography frequently crossing the joins. There is a sense of transcending time but I’m less convinced it gets to the heart of how we communicate in these pandemic times as Fang hopes.

The Thread of Navigation by Erica Lall similarly flips between dancers in different locations. Again, lots of appealing dance but it is the spoken word that expresses best how people get through the sort of times of doubt and uncertainty that we find ourselves in.

Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside in Swan LakePhoto courtesy ABT
Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside in Swan Lake
Photo courtesy American Ballet Theatre

A dash of out and out classicism comes with the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, a film by and featuring Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside. Filmed on a wooden floating pontoon on a pine-tree fringed lake, the natural surroundings and lack of costume (he’s in T-shirt and shorts and she’s in a simple practice dress) lend the dance quite a spiritual feel.

Boylston and Whiteside’s dance has beautiful grace and control, all the more remarkable given that the unanchored pontoon was not anchored and thus wobbly. Uneven too, as Boylston revealed afterwards. The camera makes great use of the open vistas and light, with those moments backlit by the sun that render the dancers in near-silhouette, especially effective. It is, quite simply, gorgeous.

Devon Teuscher in Sillage by Jose SebastianPhoto courtesy ABT
Devon Teuscher in Sillage by Jose Sebastian
Photo courtesy American Ballet Theatre

At less than four minutes, Sillage by Jose Sebastian proves that it’s possible to pack a punch in a very short time. The French word generally means a trail left by a person or object, such as a boat’s wake, but here refers to a former lover’s scent lingering on a sweater. Clever close-up camerawork not only makes even the everyday act of Devon Teuscher getting up compelling but also sends a powerful message that something even more interesting is about to happen. It does. When that sweater is picked, we dive into her mind as she and Cory Stearns dance in a park. Beautifully touching and sincere, it really does get right to the heart of the matter.

Devon Teuscher in Sillage by Jose SebastianPhoto courtesy ABT
Devon Teuscher in Sillage by Jose Sebastian
Photo courtesy American Ballet Theatre

While Kelvin McKenzie had stressed the creators didn’t have to make a ‘dance film’ in the sense that it had plenty of recognisable dancing, that is how most approached it. Not Claire Davison, who drew on multiple inspirations for her Dans Tes Rêve (In Your Dream), including the surrealism and humour of film-makers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Jacques Tati, the music of Scott Joplin, the pen and ink art of Edward Gorey (who, incidentally, was an admirer of Balanchine’s work and a frequent attendee of New York City Ballet), and the writing of Roald Dahl. That sounds way too much, especially when you add in a cast of six odd, characters that share a house with an artist, but Davison weaves it all together in a delightful film made in the style of a black-and-white silent movie.

Dans Tes Rêve by Claire DavisonScreenshot from film
Dans Tes Rêve by Claire Davison
Screenshot from film

Like many people at the moment, not only in the arts, those six (who include a poet stuck for inspiration, a downbeat clown and an unemployed dancer) have all lost their dream. As each wonders where their particular dream went, it’s left to the artist to rekindle hope. Amusing but best of all uplifting, the sense of hope gave a fine end to the festival.

American Ballet Theatre’s Moving Stories festival is available on ABT’s YouTube channel (Day One, Day Two).