Behind every piece of art is a bunch of testy people arguing loudly—or so Judge Brett Cullum found after watching this probing documentary.
Artistic Director #1: It's done, but we don't know if it's any good or
The performing arts are always a collaborative effort, and sometimes putting several artists together in a room is really painful and makes things an absolute mess. In Last Dance we get to see ramshackle improvisational dance group Pilobolus trying to work on a piece with cantankerous Maurice Sendak (author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are). Sparks fly, tempers flare, and clothes come off in a very entertaining documentary shot by Mirra Bank (Nobody's Girls). First Run Features provides a nice package for this insightful movie that should have dance fans and artists in general nodding their heads in recognition at how painful the creative process can be. Giving birth is probably easier, and a whole lot less messy. Don't believe me? Well, check this disc out.
It all starts off with Pilobolus practicing in their rehearsal space, and doing what they do best. They are a group of acrobatic dancers that have been comprised of four artistic directors and six revolving dancers since 1971. They always work collaboratively on any piece they perform, and there really is no leader in the organization, which has always relied heavily on the art of improvisation. They are the jazz artists of the dance world, if you will. Enter Maurice Sendak, with his partners in The Night Kitchen Theatrical company. They have decided to work with Pilobolus on a new ballet, and nobody knows what it's going to be about. The dancers assume it will be a childish fantasy along the lines of Sendak's most famous books. Imagine their surprise, then, when Sendak outlines a piece about children in the Holocaust missing the last train to freedom. Not only that, but he wants the music to be inspired by a score from a real children's opera that children sang before they were sent to death camps.
It sounds like the scenario is going to get really heavy from here on out, but rest assured there are plenty of playful moments to be found in Last Dance. Mirra Bank has inserted some moving historical footage of the children from World War II, which makes the piece resonate with its history; but the real fun is seeing the collaboration of two drastically different styles. Sendak wants a stark, angry piece that could draw blood; the acrobatic abstractionalists just want to find a way to tell the story through their own unique way of moving. The film footage was shot over eight months, and includes many episodes where Sendak starts screaming "NO! NO!" and the dancers just look around impishly confused while the artistic directors try to pacify him with explanations of how they work.
Sendak really never gains control until he designs the set and costumes. They are beautifully rendered illustrations that he often draws right on the dancers' bodies. It's breathtaking to see Pilobolus working out what images they want to use, and glimpsing Sendak's gorgeous conceptual sketches. They are all fantastic artists, with more to say in a move or gesture and picture than most actors could muster with two pages of dialogue. The creative process takes center stage here, and I was struck at how well it was all captured. Many times movies about dance seem to miss what's at the core of any performance, but Last Dance triumphantly captures the entire experience flawlessly with a lot of flair. It's a love story on several levels. There is the love of what they are doing here, or a love for dance. There is also the story of Maurice Sendak falling in love with the entire group as he comes to appreciate them and admire their prowess.
But as in any love story, conflicts do arise, and obstacles are surmounted. At one point Maurice Sendak gets so flustered and out of control that one of the artistic directors of Pilobolus tells him he's useless. It almost destroys their partnership, and jeopardizes the piece. Then, along comes the issue of nudity in the work. Sendak wants it in there to make a point about how the Germans stripped their detainees, while some of the Pilobolus camp thinks it will distract the audience from the main point. They both are right in a way, because the horror Sendak wants to paint with his nudity will be nullified by the fact that the dancers look great naked, and it could all backfire. And let's face it, naked ballet is always gonna be silly, just because things move that shouldn't be moving. It's why they invented dance belts. (Trust me—I know this from experience.) Yet Sendak is not going to back down. It becomes almost silly that they are all fighting about this part of a dance piece, but it's details like this that artists obsess over. The audience gets to see the final product, but little do they know that every second has been agonized over for months. In the end things work out beautifully, but now you are fully aware of the pain inherent in the process. Last Dance is a great example of how difficult it is to make anything artistic.
First Run Features gives you a great package to support Last Dance. You get the film in a 1.85:1 enhanced transfer that is great. The film was shot using a digital Betacam, so the image is pristine and always clear. That's crucial here considering the details that go into the designs of the costumes and sets. As an audience member, you would never realize that one dancer's dress is a pretty pink pool of swastikas, but the camera gets close enough to reveal such a striking detail. The sound mix is fine, and dialogue and music are well represented. There are four short films included which elaborate on Pilobolus and the individual dancers, and which show some deleted sequences with Maurice Sendak coaching them. You also get an interview with filmmaker Mirra Bank, as she ends up on a local newscast promoting the film. There are also some nice liner notes on the companies involved, and a photo gallery.
It's a good documentary about dance and the arts. Those seem so rare these days, and for that Last Dance fits the bill nicely. There isn't too much drama beyond the making of art. I will warn you there is some full frontal nudity, and I couldn't see this disc being appropriate for younger dance students looking for inspiration. I would think it would be fine for anyone over thirteen, but it is racy just for the fact you do see some bodies in motion. For some that will be a selling point, and I can assure you that both the boys and the girls of Pilobolus are pretty and have great bodies. But more impressive is their talent at creating unique dance moves that defy gravity and conventional choreography. This is a wonderfully entertaining look at some serious art that never gets bogged down with pretentiousness. It's all about being mired in the process, and who hasn't been there at some point?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interview with Mirra Bank
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