Denmark, 2010, 58min | USA 2009., 2h 39min.
The dance doc has made significant leaps in capturing and controlling a moveable art form, from modern to ballet to the folkloric movements of a nation. As Danish filmmaker Boris Bertram discovered while making his new dance film, Tankograd, directors must become choreographers of sorts … and the best shots come from learning how to dance along. “I wanted to tell a story about a Russian dance company in the most radioactively polluted city on earth,” says Bertram about the initial seedling of Tankograd, his latest documentary film.
The film is set in Chelyabinsk in West Siberia, home to one of the most hazardous nuclear disasters on earth – 20 times worse than Chernobyl! And at the centre of this omnipresent danger, a passionate modern dance company is coping with their city’s devastation through their art form. In Tankograd, Bertram tells two stories, maintaining a rhythmic balance between history and art, with themes from the latter connecting with the facts about growing up in the ill-fated city of Chelyabinsk. What does art mean to the young Russian generation of artists and workers? It means an escape. It means staying focused on their form to distract from the realities of what is potentially a risky and short-lived life.
In the film, one dancer accounts for Russia’s three major setbacks: poor roads, idiots and drunks.
“All countries have problems,” she says, “but as long as you ignore them, life is beautiful.”Ignore them, or perhaps interpret them.
Previous performances from the Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre have opened under such titles as “The Dying Generation” – addressing the history of the Soviet Union by abstractly conveying the specific themes of destruction and corruption. Tankograd’s final dance performance is a weightless piece called “Celestial Bodies”, which explores the notion of an absence of gravity, both conceptually and from the perspective of living in Russia. As Bertram sees it, if a person loses his footing in Russia, he falls hard, and, without a defined support system, might face tremendous difficulties getting to his feet again.
Celestial Bodies incorporates themes of attraction, freefall and flight, employing motifs of rocket ships that mirror atomic bombs, thus reflecting their city’s history through conceptual movement. By the time we see the final staging of Celestial Bodies, after scenes of rehearsals and discussion, we sense a pang of solemnity in the performance that comes from knowing the private lives of the dancers. In other words, their realities have seeped into their art, becoming serpentine in both their flow and communication.
In 2002, Dutch filmmaker Jos de Putter made The Damned and the Sacred, also known as Dans Grozny Dans, a documentary that followed a Chechen children’s dance troupe on a cross-Europe tour.
Like Tankograd, the film is a testament to art as salvation. When a youthful Muslim generation are forced to confront a lifethreatening situation, they rely on a perfected and expressive tradition to guide them out of the darkness.
The Damned and the Sacred tackles the ferocity and precision of traditional Chechen dance amidst a landscape of Russian missiles used to crush and dismantle terrorist attacks by Chechen rebel forces. Following the troupe on tour in Europe, de Putter’s camera is never evasive, toggling between the bedazzled audience and the performers’ confession box. Intimate interviews with the young dancers and coach reveal a mission to show the world, through graceful steps, that Chechens are not bandits and terrorists. As their coach explains, Chechens have been taught from a young age that they must be controlled by an imperial European power. Nowadays, control does not offer a solution or an escape when people are suffering from powerlessness. How does one gain control? Where does one feel empowered? On stage, of course, where the goal is to convince the audience that each performer has a volcano within him or her that can be controlled with mind and body. Some of the dancers come from refugee camps, others are average school children; either way, like Tankograd’s dancers, their drive to dance the pain away, or at least their current reality, eclipses the stage and leaps into the camera’s eye.
Both Bertram and de Putter have isolated and made beautiful the fiery spirit – the antidote, the cure – at the centre of political and historical tragedy. As a self-proclaimed non-expert in the field of dance, Bertram says his decision to make Tankograd was not to merely make a dance film, but to tell the strongest story possible. What interests Bertram the most about filming dance is that moment when the performance becomes an emotional thread or story unto itself. To him, dance has the potential to be a mood or metaphor that articulates the wider environment offstage or outside the studio doors.
Other documentary films of the dance genre have steered away from the background noise and headed straight for a visual and logistical study of the art form.
Fredrick Wiseman’s La Danse, for example, is an opus doc that follows the prestigious and gruellingly demanding rehearsals of the Paris Opera Ballet in the opulent Palais Garnier. Infamous for his cinematic grilling of institutional systems, Wiseman employs a similar approach in La Danse, by simply letting the camera eavesdrop on every step in the creative process of one of the most renowned ballets in the world. Wiseman’s film does not attempt to show dance as a means of coping.
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