Today’s post is brought to you by 3.5 dance films. It’s not quite four because one of them is structured a lot like a sports film.
Save the Last Dance 2 (David Petrarca, 2006)
Stomp the Yard (Sylvain White, 2007)
Center Stage (Nicholas Hytner, 2000)
The Company (Robert Altman, 2003)
Technique and passion. Ambition and execution. Discipline and ingenuity. Sacrifice and competition. These themes pervade through these four films. They have different narrative concerns and the dance sequences serve subtly different purposes (and are filmed differently too), but the characters all have to contend with perfecting themselves and proving some sort of naysayer wrong.
Save the Last Dance 2 is the sequel to Thomas Carter’s 2001 film Save the Last Dance. I didn’t watch the first one–though I’ve seen most of the film on TBS–and the reason I decided to watch the second one was for Columbus Short.
He is the main character in Stomp the Yard and one of the featurettes indicated that he was a trained dancer but stepping was something knew to him. I went on IMDB to look up his filmography and saw that he was in Save the Last Dance 2. I rented it assuming he would be a dancer–he’s actually a composer and DJ in the film. It picks up where the first one left off–Sara Johnson (played by Julia Stiles in the original and Izabell Miko in the second) has arrived at Juliard and over the course of many months must prove that she is good enough to stay. Her toughest critic is also her idol, Monique Delacroix (Jacqueline Bissett).
A love story between Sara and Miles (Columbus Short), her “Hip-Hop Theory” instructor, is incorporated into the plot. It becomes an ephemeral point of tension because even though we all know that Sara loves hip-hop as much as ballet, she can only be a prima ballerina in one of those dance forms.
Originally from Poland, Izabella Miko looks the part of a ballet dancer (and she is a trained ballet dancer),
but her dancing was a bit awkward in the film. Her hip-hop was even less amazing to behold. I blame it on the cinematography and the editing.
The majority of the dance sequences (and practices) are filmed from a high or a low angle. The high angle is standard across the board in any film because it serves practical–as well as ideological–purposes. The high angle long shot, to be exact, allows the viewer to get a sense of the space of the scene, where the characters are in relation to each other. When filming a dance sequence (on or off stage), a high angle shot can provide more visual information on sagital movement–going from downstage to up stage, or moving from the bottom of the stage to the top.
Unfortunately, frequent cutting and a lot of low angle shots not only fragment the imagery, but they also downplay any athleticism and aestheticism inherent in the dance number. After a while, the dancing itself becomes obligatory. The film’s end suggests that she’d choose a love life over a dance life. It just so happens that her love allows her to see that pointe shoes and leotards are not the sole components of her dreams. She’s gotta have the baggy pants and beats too.
Center Stage, on the other hand, features a group of dancers who (with the exception of one character) wants nothing more than to be ballet dancers.
The main character in this film is Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull, sitting first row in the picture). All she has ever wanted was to be a ballerina and after passing auditions, receives a scholarship to study at the American Ballet Academy (a fictionalized version of the American Ballet Theatre) in New York City. Shortly after arriving and starting classes, she realizes that her technique is not as good as it needs to be to make it to the company. But she has such passion and she tries so hard to improve, spending hours in the studio until her toes bleed (which is actually an occupational hazard for ballerinas).
The supporting cast of characters includes Eva Rodriguez(Zoe Saldana), who has great techique but a lousy attitude–she speaks her mind and would stick it to the man before comprising; Maureen Cummings (Susan May Pratt), who has the skills but not the artistry; Charlie Sims (Sacha Radetsky, a real American Ballet Theatre member); Sergei (Olympic gold-medalist figure skater Illia Kulik); and Erik Jones (Shakiem Evans).
Peter Gallagher plays company director Johnathan Reeves; Donna Murphy plays Juliette Simone, an instructor; Ethan Stiefel (also a member of the American Ballet Theatre) plays company dancer Cooper Nielson; and Julie Kent (an American Ballet Theatre member too) is company dancer Kathleen Donahue.
Amanda Schull had to have had ballet experience before filming because her dance sequences are filmed with more long shots and long takes than Susan May Pratt and Zoe Saldana, who learned how to move and pose like a ballerina from the waist up. Take a look at this clip.
Center Stage succeeds much more as a ballet film than Save the Last Dance 2. The picture composition, particularly during the rehearsals, is much more aesthetically pleasing and the dancing is never adulterated by an attempt to be visually dynamic. This image is a screen shot from one of the practices:
Jody and Eva look on as Maureen demonstrates an exercise. The shot begins more or less at this medium shot. Within seconds, the camera tracks towards screen right and re-orients itself on to a closer shot of Jody and Eva. While one could argue that medium shots and medium close-ups allow the filmmaker to avoid having to make an actor look convincing as a dancer, in this case, the medium shot serves a narrative purpose. The point of this scene is not to showcase Maureen’s excellent arm positions; instead, it is to focus on Jody’s mental block. She can’t improve her “game” if she keeps obsessing about someone else’s. And, Zoe Saldana’s expressions are great. One wouldnt be able to see them very well if the shot was filmed farther away.
The match-on-action edits were very seamless as well. Observe.
Rapid cutting, as is the case with Save the Last Dance 2, does not make a dance appear any more exciting than disorienting hand-held camerawork makes a combat scene more exciting. Behold.
In fact, it’s quite possible to adhere to the “recital aesthetic” (usually stationary camera with an occasional pan or tilt or zoom in) and be refreshing just by manipulating light and color. Example: Robert Altman’s film The Company.
The film does not have a plot per se; it’s more like a season-in-the-life-of-a-ballet-company. In this case, it’s a fictionalized version of the Joffrey Ballet (whose dancers are featured in the film, including a former Atlanta Ballet dancer Julianne Kepley ^&^ I’ve seen her dance many times over the years). Malcom McDowell plays Alberto Antonelli, artistic director of a Chicago ballet company. Neve Campbell is Ry, a company dancer who is given the opportunity to become a principal dancer in the troupe. Filmed in HD-DV and reminiscent of a 70s visual style, The Company takes the viewer into the pre-production and production phases of running a dance company and preparing for performances.
Decisions have to be made that aren’t so dissimilar from managing a sports team. Dancers who get injured are replaced by understudies. Players that are injured have to sit out and backups are put in the game. Aspects of the dancers’ lives are also presented, such as maintaining physical prowess and struggling with near-poverty.
There are many dance numbers in this film, both in practice and in performance. Altman, known for his multi-track audio and ensemble cast narratives, handles the multi-layered components of the movie sufficiently well. Andrew Dunn, the cinematographer, has a diverse filmography, and likely works in collaboration with rather than under his director. The most common shot scale of the performances is the medium long shot:
I think the word “shimmering” is the most accurate descriptor for what the dance numbers look like.
Click here for the trailer.
According to the making of featurette, Neve Campbell had danced all her life and had always wanted to make a ballet film. She also wanted Robert Altman above anyone else to direct the film. Oh yes, James Franco plays Neve Campbell’s love interest…the reason he agreed to be in the film was so he could work with Altman.
Even though The Company lacks a conventional narrative, the glimpse it offers into the mechanics of operating a dance company fascinating. The dancers are constantly being told to improve their technique and are pushing themselves to do better. Their progress is the product of collaboration. Their goal is not to advance a ball from point A to point B, but they have to work together to convey an emotion and an idea to an audience.
Sports movies, particularly those that are about team sports, emphasize the importance of teamwork in winning games. In this respect, Stomp the Yard is more of a sports movie than a dance film. Produced by Rainforest Films, the same company behind a handful of films set and filmed in Atlanta, Stomp the Yard follows DJ (Columbus Short) and his journey to redemption following the death of his younger brother. The means to this redemption? a second chance at a new life in Atlanta, GA as a college student at Truth University. A series of coincidental events pulls DJ into the world of fraternities and stepping.
Although DJ is an expert b-boy and freestyle hip-hopper, he is a stranger to the order and discipline in the world of stepping. Stomp the Yard is also less of a dance film because the rivalry between Mu Gamma Xi and Theta Nu Theta propels the story. There may not be a clock or number to beat, but there is an external antagonist. DJ isn’t just trying to put his past behind him; he is trying to become a better person. In order to do so, he has to learn to work with his fraternity brothers, even if he ends up leading them.
Given the love subplot involving the girlfriend (Meagan Good) of a Gamma Xi, the dynamic between DJ and the other characters, as well as the role that stepping plays in the lives of the fraternity brothers, Stomp the Yard is ideologically more similar to The Gridiron Gang and The Replacements than it is to You Got Served (Chris Stokes, 2004). Thus, filming the dancing is more than recording visual information. It isn’t just a matter of “getting it on tape. ” Stylization, innovation, and frame-rate manipulation is necessary.
I saw Stomp the Yard in the movie theatre and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the way the dance sequences were filmed. I found the visual style of the breaking scenes a bit off-putting. I thought it was too stylized. Upon repeat viewings, though, it made more sense to me.
Major League (David S. Ward, 1989), archival baseball footage, and some early baseball films are on the menu for the next update.
pix creds: google image search, yahoo movies, amazon.com