In America, trailblazing is part of our national identity.
Our own stories are built upon the legacies of pioneers, and that is ever true in American dance, which is filled with legends who carved their own paths. On occasion these groundbreaking artists create something that, against all odds, grows to be treasured by the entire nation.
Two recent documentaries each highlight an institution widely recognized as an American dance treasure and both are available to own on DVD.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance chronicles the Joffrey Ballet, from its humble beginnings touring the country in a borrowed station wagon, to becoming one of the world’s most exciting and prominent ballet companies.
Never Stand Still takes us to a farm in the Massachusetts Berkshires where visionary dance pioneer Ted Shawn founded Jacob’s Pillow in the 1930s and, through footage, stories, and interviews, places legendary choreographers alongside new innovators and classical ballet dancers next to vaudevillian performers to reveal the passion, discipline, and daring presented year after year at this idyllic mecca for artists.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance
I have been following the release and distribution of the Joffrey movie for some time and was fortunate to be present at Houston’s one-night-only screening earlier this year.
The Joffrey story is not told enough. Dancers value their history, however, I’m surprised at how infrequently the origins, characters, and events that make up the Joffrey Ballet narrative are discussed or taught. I found there was much to learn about this world-renown dance company.
The film immediately draws viewers into its tale with archival images and anecdotes from those who played their part in the Joffrey story. It is in turn, moving, funny, and inspiring. You will become immersed in the drama of the Joffrey company’s triumphs and failures, easily forgetting that you are watching an educational and historical documentary.
Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the visionaries behind this company and many of its original ballets were instrumental to the development of contemporary dance in the United States. The underdogs of ballet, they exemplified their time by pushing dance forward artistically and socially with bold political statements, provocative choices, and daring redefinitions of the art form. Young dancers studying today are enjoying the ripple effect of their rendering of the American Dream through The Joffrey Ballet.
No dance program library or history class is complete without this documentary film. It’s that good.
Never Stand Still
I feel very fortunate to have visited the Pillow several times over the last 8 years. The first time was as the leader of a group of young dance students who could not begin to understand the significance this mountain retreat held for me.
Reverence for Jacob’s Pillow and those who’ve walked its gravel boulevards are a feature of this DVD. Photographs, brief footage, and interviews provide windows into the history of the site; into the minds of the male dancers who first called the picturesque retreat their dance home; and into the passions of Ted Shawn, the man who saw its potential. It also calls on those who have made work on the Pillow’s summer students, like Suzanne Farrell and Judith Jamison, and a few of the young pre-professionals, to share their stories and experiences.
While the significance of Jacob’s Pillow as a mecca for dance artists will not be lost on any viewer, the film also focuses on the lives and craft of dancers past and present. Rasta Thomas, the bad boy of ballet, gives his perspective on what it means to be a choreographer today compared to yesterday. Mark Morris describes the thrust of his work and why it is ‘not for everyone, but anyone.’ Paul Taylor asserts that a dancer chooses a difficult path.
Finally, Never Stand Still, as its title indicates, exposes the ever-evolving nature of dance and the diversity of movement and artistic modalities that are celebrated and brought together year, after year, after year at Jacob’s Pillow.
Well aware that I sound like a broken record, your dance program library is not complete without this film to bring awareness to the next generation of dancers.
Have you seen either documentary?
What did you think?
What DVDs have been an indispensable part of your dance library?
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world. Read Nichelle’s posts.