Friday, December 18, 2009

15 Days of Dance: The Making of Ghost Light

It was 2007. After two years of talks and planning, at the beginning of the new year, Elliot Caplan finally embarked on a daring collaboration with American Ballet Theatre. The renowned filmmaker, who spent 20 years at Merce Cunningham’s side as resident filmmaker of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and today heads the Center for the Moving Image at the University at Buffalo, commissioned and was about to film a new dance under construction. He had the support of the University––an unusual move for a public institution––and he had the support of the mayor of the city. It was an auspicious beginning.

On January 8, the project began in earnest. That day ABT choreographer Brian Reeder presented the first steps of his new work, Ghost Light, set to Aaron Copland’s “Music for the Theater,” to the 11 young dancers of the ABT Studio Company in the company’s Broadway home. Caplan and fellow cameraman Donald DuBois haunted the space for 15 days as Reeder built the work, shooting 68 hours of film using two production cameras and two microphones. They caught the choreographic process at different angles, in varying light, in close up and in long shot. New York City peered through the room’s large windows as they filmed, and inside a powerful intimacy reigned over the action.

The company then shifted to Buffalo where it was in residence for the week of January 27 to February 4. On February 3, the Studio dancers debuted Ghost Light in downtown Buffalo’s historic Shea’s Performing Arts Center to 3,500 Buffalo public school students and then to a general audience on the university campus, a night of blizzard conditions. The filming continued. In March, when the troupe appeared in New Orleans, they performed the work again, this time as a symbolic gift from the city of the Buffalo Shuffle to the storm-wrecked home of Dixieland jazz.

To an outsider, the venture might seem like a conventional documentary project about a dance. But what Caplan has produced slips those bounds. His idea was to establish with 15 Days Of Dance a new standard of filmed dance preservation and at the same time to capture the choreographic process from the first step to its staged showing. Sixty-eight hours of film have been edited down not to 1.5 or even 3 hours, or even 6, as documentaries at the outer reaches of the form might run, but to 18. While 15 Days Of Dance is a document, it is far more than that: it is an extended cinematic rumination on the making of art. Graciously, Reeder and the dancers allow us in to view their artistic process, a process closely guarded by most dance makers due, in part, to its intimacy but also due to its often discursive, improvisational nature.

If you rifle through the dance archives you will discover that a dance documentary was made with ABT and released in 1995 by Frederick Wiseman whose 170-minute film is called, simply and categorically, Ballet. Wiseman, who is best known for his sociological studies of prisons, hospitals and schools, trailed American Ballet Theater dancers and administrators for a period of nine weeks and over two continents. Ranging through studios, on stage, in offices and into rehearsals, Wiseman lets the viewer taste “life” at ABT. Trained in his youth as a lawyer, he has a gritty style and lurching lens of a court reporter. His method is to impose narrative on his material, making Ballet notable as a record of the dailiness of life among a troupe of thoroughbred dancers. There are the long hiatuses between classes, rehearsals and stage events, when dancers eat, sleep, read or knit, and there are the difficulties in running dance as a business. Time is distended, sometimes interminable. When exaltation does arise, it does so out of a sheer force of will that hauls undifferentiated experience into the realm of art. In Wiseman’s hands, the central miracle is that beauty and substance transpire at all.

Caplan, who trained as a visual artist with Elizabeth Murray and as a filmmaker with Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage, has a different starting point and a far different objective in 15 Days Of Dance. He begins with a single and complete work of art, taking its pulse at each step of the encounter. His role is rather like a canny detective attempting to discover the mystery of the process, sifting for clues as he uses his camera to study a rich, ever-moving, always-evolving tapestry. Like many important avant-garde filmmakers before him, he invites a story to surface, he doesn’t impose one. His particular approach is painterly, elegant, and discreet, and he peers into an apparent chaos of events knowing that there are patterns hidden amid the jumble. Nothing in his filmed universe is banal and nothing is insignificant.

It is a point of view that aims for depth within the frame while seeking an overall structure that both enlarges and mirrors that depth. Caplan achieves this by filming a complete event executed by a constant group of dancers, allowing not only the details of dance making to interest us but also the group itself over time, so that they become a choreographic study even as they learn and build a dance. This layers 15 Days Of Dance with apparitions of its dominant theme, making it a work of art about artists working to create a work of art.

The technical elements of the filmmaking are crucial to this process. The filmmaker’s camera, shooting with quiet magic, captures the action in almost constant wide full shot, typically on the diagonal, and sometimes in split screen. This lets us feel the dancers and choreographer working, thinking, and plotting pensively. It also builds an even clearer intimacy than if we were in the room with them, since our own egos are not part of the ambient experience and the camera can bring us a depth of field and multiple viewpoints that permit us to see the action fully. As a result, 15 Days Of Dance also has a central miracle but one in which beauty and substance are everywhere; one need only look closely, through the eye of the camera, to find them.

“I asked the question: ‘How does a dance get made?’” Caplan explained to the Buffalo audience during a panel discussion that followed the premiere. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be around choreographers for many years and I watch the process. I find it fascinating, and I was sure others would also….What I’m capturing is the series of decisions that Brian is making in the moment with the dancers….He is giving them instruction. They are listening to what he is saying.” They move as he moves, are silent when he is silent, Caplan adds.

And so they are. We watch the dancers quickly and easily translate the complex nonverbal material Reeder transmits from his body to theirs, a kinetic process that is animal and sublime, quotidian but never commonplace, and as old as culture itself. We witness the liquid creation of art out of seamless effort and inspiration. Time moves fluidly and occasionally seems suspended. There is no backstage, and with two cameras trained on the action, all the work occurs before us. The space of the studio also has stunning aural depth, making the quiet resonant and pendant rather than shallow and flat. For this Caplan is indebted, in part, to John Cage, whose exquisite handling of musical silence continues to influence the filmmaker’s understanding of the aural landscape. Sound lets us know the space and the space is the medium in which the dance transpires.

15 Days Of Dance is not a documentary, says Caplan. “If it ends up a documentary it will because it will have first been made [in] another form and remade into a documentary. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to find the form.” That form—of some essence of dance making itself, or of Reeder’s particular process of choreographing––will emerge.

And what of ghost light? Ghost light, as most theatergoers know, is the light left on in the theater. In Shakespeare’s day theaters ritually kept a candle lit. Later it was a gas lamp, and today an electric light stays illuminated through the night to ward off the ghosts of past performances. Reeder’s ballet honors the theater, the ghosts, the echoes that haunt a place like Buffalo, where the New York-to-Buffalo theater circuit once thrived. And Caplan is the medium, filming the seen to capture the unseen, bringing us a little closer to the beautiful patterns hidden in front of our eyes.

(Parts of 15 Days of Dance: The Making of Ghost Light are being shown in installments at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center and at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. with the filmmaker on hand. Check the institutions' calendars for dates and times. Caplan will release the multi-disc compilation of Ghost Light in limited edition in 2010. Visit for more information.)

Nuts to All That

IT WAS A tough year for optimism until citizen Mary Strey of Wisconsin called 911 about two weeks ago. She told the dispatcher that someone terribly drunk was driving down the county road she was on. The dispatcher tried to get a bead on the location, then asked where Mary was relative to this driver. Was she behind them?

No, she said, "I am them."

"You am them?" he marveled.

Mary was making a citizen's arrest. It just happened that she was the one she wanted arrested.

Mark Morris is a little like Mary Strey, although the laws he breaks are the rules of 20th-century dance, not the highway, and where we meet him isn't on the shoulder of the road, it's in the theater. Also, as drunkenly campy as "The Hard Nut" first struck some when it premiered here, Morris' holiday romp, returning to Cal Performances for two weeks in December, is an honest remake of the Nutcracker with a core of modern, cockeyed optimism.

Nutcrackers are lavish, and this is a big, blowzy modern dance-inflected work replete with libation-fueled revelry and louche '70s dancing. It also revamps the classic tale in a way that steers closer to the strange story within a story of the ETA Hoffman original, with a result that is lovable and naughty. And though this is no sing-along dance-along Nutcracker, Morris lets us feel that we would be frolicking on stage alongside the tipsy Stahlbaums and dizzy Snowflakes with their sno-cone heads if only he'd give us the signal to leap from our theater seats.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Dec 11-13 and 17-20, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way, Berkeley; $36-$62; 510-642-9988,

Left Leaning

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts continues its provocative programming this month with the upcoming Left Coast Leaning Festival, an exciting collaboration among the likes of neoclassicist Amy Sweiwert and hip-hop postmodernist Rennie Harris, and others. Curated by spoken-word maverick Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the event is designed to create a collage of storytelling, music and urban dance that signals seismic shifts in the culture already under way in California.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Thursday-Dec. 5, YBCA Forum Space, 701 Mission St., at Third; $35 festival pass, $10 for ages 24 and younger; 415-978-2787,

All together now

Bay Area ballet veteran Carlos Carvajal, director of the Peninsula Ballet, joins forces with the dancers of Oakland Ballet to stage his Nutcracker at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and the San Mateo Performing Arts Center in San Mateo. This production is a sweet, homegrown interpretation of the classic, and live music, which gives any Nutcracker real magic, is being provided by the Oakland East Bay Symphony under Michael Morgan. (The orchestra, in order to be affordable to the cash-strapped companies, lowered the its fees for the occasion.)

For a fee, donors can climb into a costume and join the dancers on stage.

DETAILS: 4 p.m. Dec. 12 and 19, 2 p.m. Dec. 13 and 20, San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo, 650-762- 0258; 11 a.m. Dec. 24, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 26, 2 p.m. Dec. 27, Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, 510-465-6400,; $50-$15 general, $40-$12 children 12 and younger (20 percent discount with food donation), $37.50-$11.25 seniors.

A Twirl with Twyla

Twyla Tharp, the Alice Waters of dance, is best known for putting high and low fare together in the same event. With an optimism about the world's capacity for change, she stormed the gilded halls of ballet's opera houses and steered her way into the heavily male realm of commercial theater to create revolutionary dance mash-ups blending classical and club dance. Next month, she appears in Words on Dance to discuss her latest book, "The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together."

Her newest volume is an homage to the art of working with others as much as it is to the famous folks she's worked with over the years, stars such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Milos Forman and Bob Dylan. But Tharp is a realist even more than an optimist. She understands that while collaboration may good for the soul, playing well with others is essential to get wherever one hungers to go.

DETAILS: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8, Herbst Theatre, 410 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; $25, $10 off regular price for F. Dancers' Group members; 415-392-4400,

Lab special

It takes so much optimism to run a minuscule space in a miserable economy when so many storefronts are emptying like bird nests in autumn. Yet that's what Joe Landini dares to do at the Garage in San Francisco, a tiny black box theater with a red door. The venue hosts a lineup of interesting up-and-coming Bay Area performance artists in December, and if you're looking for the unsung or experimental, this is a good place to start.

In the middle of the month the Garage spotlights Field All-Stars, including Megan Nicely, Dan Carbone and Jen Marie. They are followed by a choreography showcase, "raw & uncut," with Liz Boubion; the group BodiGram in "For the Love of the Game!"; and FACT/SF, Charles Slender's year-old company founded with a group of collaborators, in "The Consumption Series, Part III." The run concludes with "Veils and Apparitions," two evenings of intermedia work with Janet and Raja Das, Amy Lewis, Sonsherée Giles, Agnes Szelag and Caroline Penward.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Dec. 12, Field All Stars, $10-20; 8 p.m. Dec. 15-16 raw & uncut, $10-20; 8 p.m. Dec. 18-19, Veils and Apparitions $10-15, The Garage, 975 Howard St., SF. 415-885-4006.

Nuts to that

The King of the Nuts is San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, and despite its detractors, this beautifully revamped holiday spectacle is held together as few are by the comprehensible story of a girl's transformation from childhood to young adulthood, set in San Francisco early in the 20th century. It's a story that dashes forward breathlessly, magically, as spellbinding as a sleigh ride in moonlight.

DETAILS: 7 p.m. Dec. 8-27, 2 p.m. Dec. 11-13, 17-23 and 26-27, 11 a.m. Dec. 24, San Francisco Opera House War Memorial House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; $18-$236; 415-865-2000,

reprinted with permission (print date 11/27/09)