Ric Burns’ beautiful and informative documentaries for PBS have celebrated Eugene O’Neill, Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, the Civil War, whaling, the movement west and the unforgettable New York: A Documentary Film, among many other subjects.
Burns’ latest American Ballet Theatre: a History became a labour of love as he wasn’t especially interested in ballet. Then one night, he stood in the wings of an ABT performance and was transfixed. He dedicated the next eight years on capturing its essence on film.
We spoke recently and I have never heard any art form described in such a true way. And the documentary is something to behold, as transformative as the way he felt watching his first ballet close-up and elevating on every level. M&C asked how he knew the ABT was “the one”.
It’s a really strong gut feeling you get that you know it’s such a rich concentrated of human enterprise where you use your head to itemise why you feel that way.
The gut feeling the thing that pulls you in – it came not all at once but rather rapidly when a friend of the ABT took us to the ballet and had a bee in her bonnet that we should do a film.
We were standing in the wings when Apollo was being danced and Jose Manuel came in drenched with sweat – it was the proximity and feeling that ebb and flow of work and transcendence that’s going on and watching these people throw themselves into the wings and the throw themselves back on stage and it was electrifying. Every pre conception I had was wrong.
It was something so powerful and not available in any other art form. It’s not like music that you can see and it’s certainly not like film. All the arts have a commonality and part of my challenge was not to kill dance with film.
It’s so beautiful, electric and immediate and ephemeral. It’s a land preserved in glass it seemed.
Monsters and Critics: I’ve seen a lot of ballet documentaries and a couple on the American Ballet Theatre but none has ever described the essence and beauty of dance as masterfully as yours.
It was a combination of the throwing everything we could everything we could throw out like the extra slow motion photograph.
It was a cheap trick, but if you shoot these people at 1500 frames a second (not 30) and roll it back, now, that’s 50 times slowed down, and that’s really slow and if you can look at the at it and find mesmerising beauty there then you know what their frame is every second.
The eye can’t see it, but all 1500 frames each second, you can see what they are doing, turning themselves inside out. It’s extraordinary these bodies on the stage, what could be more physical. But when it’s working, what could be so naked? The slo mo image shows the naked power of it, and is unfolds like a flower.
Then the correlative to that was the people we talked Jennifer Homans – is so unique and we relied wed no narrator, she could do what a narrator could never do.
She speaks dance in the way she talks, no affections, limber, absolutely intellectual calisthenics and so unpretentious and you realise dancers are showing you something that is true. Jennifer is showing you something true abut dance, the light, intellect and feeling in a parallel shot in super slow motion, each opening up the other and you lean way, way, way in.
If you go to the ballet you’re not going to get slo mo or Jennifer so if we have to can the dancers (in a film) we will.
Monsters and Critics: As is pointed out in the documentary, without a dancer there is no dance, it doesn’t exist, unlike the other arts.
It’s like nothing else, music is notated and obviously it can be played over and over. Not dance. You can film it but you won’t get the dance. The acoustic eardrum spikes the different in recorded music and live music.
It’s a powerful event on the eardrum in real life. There is something about it that is like a simple trick, like a high wire act and anything that happens in real.
It’s right in front of your eyes. There is a beauty to reality. And the humility and tremendous self-protection of these talented who do this! They’re not doing it for the money and their career is over in a heartbeat.
I stand a greater chance of being a major league pitcher than I do a principle dancer. It’s way more uncommon than being a brain surgeon or a goalie. Yet despite being at this level there is this humanness.
It’s self-absorbed but there is humanness in the humbling. People say almost all really great artists invent things and the greatest things recognise and reveal the world as it is, as with Shakespeare.
Dancers aren’t doing arbitrary whimsical moves; they are showing you something that exists that you can’t see in any other form, allowing you to simply see.
That’s a cultural thing, like a freemasonry for which dance means everything, there is no code or handshake, but once you’re in, the jaw drops, the hair stands on end and you’re in or you’re out. Our culture has made dance a little hard to get to but its right there, just go to it.
Monsters and Critics: Mikhail Baryshnikov was a tipping point in ballet, bringing sex appeal and fan fed stardom that hadn’t been seen in decades.
Mikhail Baryshnikov. I saw what he was dancing and when push comes to shove, he was such a breakout artist.
He was a household name, and I think that in a certain way, George Balanchine on the choreographic side is the quintessence of one key aspect of dance and Baryshnikov as well where you feel the glory of the dance every moment, they transmit it and it sparks something inside itself.
They reanimate what came before. Jennifer has this wonderful theory that the tradition is always returning to and departing from its traditions. I
ts ephemeral, but it still must be ritualistic and exacting and always taking new risks. And who did that more than Baryshnikov? Nijinsky, Nureyev also moved dance into the future.
Monsters and Critics: The Russian wave of dancers to America had a huge impact. Why?
Russia and America in the modern world has been shaped in the polarity of these two mirror cultures, and certainly for dance. Who would have thought in 1920 that classical dance would be centred in the USA and Russia?
These were railroad empires, not empires of dance. It is deeply moving and you can feel the genetics of dance are in some sense French and that the Russians transformed it with America.
Russians train their dancers from childhood and put money into it. That’s a problem for the American dance world because it lacks state for dance.
The impact that has on American dance is that it keeps it from being contained and rigidified What dance company wouldn’t weep with relief to receive subsidies?
Monsters and Critics: How long did you take to shoot the film?
We followed the company starting in 2006 at the rehearsal space at 890 Broadway and performing in Cuba and Paris but we knew that we had to do slo mo and that we would have to get them to dance for our cameras. We shot over three days and they felt at a distance but it was magic, incredible.
The American Masters — American Ballet Theatre: A History premieres May 15, 9-10:30 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) in honor of the ballet company’s 75th anniversary.