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The Reeler Blog

Dancers in the Dark

By Miriam Bale

"Choreocinema" was the term New York Times dance critic John Martin coined in 1946 to describe a new art, an equal collaboration between camera and dancer that he observed in Maya Deren's short films of the time. As the 36th Dance on Camera Festival opens tonight at the Walter Reade Theater, programmers and presenters there continue to expand on this idea of "choreography for the camera," as festival programmer Joanna Ney described it to me in a recent conversation: "It's where the visual and movement converge."

(L-R) Maris Liepa as Crassus and Nina Timofeeva as Phyrgia in Spartacus, screening at the Dance on Camera Festival (Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Opening the festival is the recently restored Spartacus, a filmed Russian ballet from 1975. It's an epic (natch) that combines dance and film techniques zealously, giving a sense of both classic ballet and Russian film, as Ney described it. Tightly packed synchronized bodies divide the stage horizontally, acting as a living curtain on the stage. Then, immediately following, the frame is divided in another way, using a showy triple split screen that packs in every aspect of ballet that we need to see at once -- the swish of so many ankles in long-view kicking towards an emotional close-up of the main dancer in the center. Whether jagged editing or dissolves, the filmmakers grab whatever tools are at their disposal to convey the forcefulness of the performance.

Utilizing a different timbre and pace is Jacques Tati's languid, yet as always brilliant, Jour de FĂȘte. The film is about the day a carnival comes to a sleepy French village and also about a postman's misadventures in efficiency. It was filmed in 1947 in both black and white and simultaneously in a new technique called Thompson-Color that would have made it the first color film in France. But it didn't work, so the film was released in black and white. In 1964, still wanting to get closer to his original vision, Tati rereleased the film with a new color title and with some red and blue details colored in with stencils. In 1995, 13 years after his death, Tati's film editor daughter, Sophie Tatische, completely restored the original color version and released the film in a new Technicolor print.

Tati's careful choreography of full-body folly -- and the way this interplays with his playfully enhanced sound effects -- always makes his films seem cartoonish. Jour de FĂȘte's dusty pastels enhance that impression; its softness of movement and subtlety in coloring look like a rotoscoped Fleisher short, like the Popeyes or Betty Boops of the '30s and '40s. (This is in contrast to the brightly colored Tashlin films of the fifties, which were almost literally Looney Toons come to life.) The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who will introduce the Sunday screening, points out another benefit of this color version: "This is color that truly looks like 1947 -- not films of that period so much as 1947 itself -- and its bucolic postwar euphoria."

The Dance on Camera Festival runs Jan. 2-6, 11 and 18-19 at the Walter Reade Theater; visit the festival's Web site for program and ticket information.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.

Posted at January 2, 2008 12:50 PM

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