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.)