I thought I would provide an update on Five Dances. I saw it last week the one night it was showing at Portland’s LGBT film fest. I was tired. I was up too late. It was still very much worth it.
The film almost met all of my expectations.
I hope most of you will not be too annoyed if I indulge in a bit of autobiography in order to explain why I am probably very biased in favor of this film.
Back when I was a kid, moving from single to double digits in age, I had my first same sex crush on an actual person rather than a fictional character. --My friends were watching Star Wars and thinking about Leia the way I was thinking about Luke.-- But, my in-real-life, real person crush was on one of the principle dancers in the Portland Ballet Company, Portland's premier ballet troupe. I had causally admired him performing on stage for a couple of years before I started taking lessons from the company’s prima ballerina, Heidi Schumacher.
The Portland Ballet Company rehearsed before my classes, which were late in the afternoon on Tuesdays. If I made all my optimal bus connections from the suburbs to the city, I could arrive in time to watch them practice for the better part of an hour. Watching professional dancers rehearse, absent the glamor of the lights and costumes, was sublime. They were so focused and so used to being watched that the kid warming up and gazing at them from the doorway was of no notice. Seeing their strength and grace in raw form, up close, was better than anything I had ever seen on stage.
And then there was that male lead dancer, Michelangelo’s “David” come-to-life, who often wore white tights that revealed everything.
There were two dressing rooms, (obviously); one for the women and one for the men. The men’s, I imagine, was much smaller than the women’s; I was one of two boys in my age range taking lessons. We were usually putting on our leotards when the men of the company were taking theirs off. (Unlike me, they were not shy.) More than once I was alone in the dressing room with "David." I suspect you can imagine the rest. My heart still races recalling it. (No, for the record, nothing more than knowing glances were exchanged: I am sure he knew --based on the grins he gave me-- that I wanted to be him and to be with him.)
Flash forward to me in my 20s and early 30s and I was involved with a professional dancer or two, in one case, much to the consternation of my mother: She was angry at the insinuations in the company’s publicity materials that this dancer was allegedly dating his female partner. (Mom was also afraid that he was going to give me AIDS, believing I was probably little more to him than a notch on his bedpost, but that is another story too long and out of context for this thread and forum.)
Several years later (now) and ballet dancers still hold a special place for me with their ability to move their bodies with so much strength, stamina, and flexibility...in an attempt, in part, to make it look so effortless and easy. The men with their unabashed beauty were a rebellion against masculine gender stereotyping years before any others, the muscular athlete as graceful artist, long before metrosexuals like David Beckham made it okay for male athletes to want to be objectified as things of beauty.
Dance and film are both art, of course; Alan Brown’s Five Dances is something of a visual poem. Austere, simple, and raw in spoken words, production design, and plot, he uses choreography to tell the story rather than using dialog between the dancers, whenever possible.
This is not Evita nor Les Mis: They do not dance when it would be better for them to speak. There are comments that are funny (The whole audience laughed at Chip’s line “Wow. That’s a lot,” which I will not spoil the context of for you here.)
The film mostly takes place in the studio, with warm ups, practice, stretching, and cooling down. There are moments that feel as if they were stolen from my days in the dance studio hallway. Everyone focused on how their bodies are moving. Wood floors. A piano. Mirrors and windows. Noise from the city streets below. Magic.
Ryan Steele does a great job with his part. His Chip is strong, guarded, determined, and intense, then alternately naive and vulnerable. We get enough from the very few exchanges of dialog to know that he is counting on his talent and drive to be his means of escape from life in Kansas. (Side note: I cannot fathom why they gave him the ill-fitting name Chip, and I wonder how the part was modified for Steele as Brown has stated, because Steele presents so differently than his character during the interviews I have seen.) Regardless, we know enough about Chip to care about him and his fate.
The two female dancers, Katie and Cynthia, are given enough individual screen time for us to sense their life stories. The two male dancers, Theo, Chip's love interest, and Anthony, the company's director, were slightly obfuscated to me; I wonder if Brown wanted Theo to be that way to increase the romantic tension with Chip, and for Anthony as a means to prevent empathy for him when he is confronted by a female dancer. It may also be that Brown under-developed these two characters out of a lack of interest in them or to prevent the film from being too formulaic about giving each character a certain amount of back story.
Five Dances is not a romance, and, despite some reviewers' comments, I found the sex scene to be sensual but not explicit. Five Dances also does not feel like a coming of age story for the simple reason that the film’s plot, what there is of it, is really more about Chip finding his footing than actually landing.
Ultimately, the film celebrates dance and dancers in raw, unadorned form. One is supposed to love watching Steele and his peers move and contort their bodies and make art. The cinematography and lighting is lovely, while also absent of flourish. The Five Dances are interspersed in the film. Each is announced with a title card. Each is wonderful and intimate. They need to be seen in the context of their placement within the film to have the intended impact on the audience. They are part of the plot.
The film’s music, a mixture of melancholia and cautious optimism, is perfect for Five Dances. Nicholas Wright’s score is available on iTunes as of last Friday. The individual songs by the other artists, including Scott Matthew (no “s”), Perfume Genius, and Gem Club are all listed at the film’s website here http://www.fivedance...ovie.com/music/ and can also be purchased via iTunes. I cannot imagine not wanting them all, particularly Gem Club’s “252,” Matthew’s “Dog,” and Perfume Genius’ “Put Your Back N 2 It” (It is the bonus track single with that title; not the album of the same name.) One is not listening to the essence of the film in music without all of them.
The music paired with the visuals make this film as good as it is.
If Five Dances is a poem, it feels like the last stanza has been omitted, probably by Brown’s intentional design. We are watching the start of someone in the process of becoming. There are lots of starts and a few sputters, but I sensed no resolute ending. The film feels like it stopped more than anything else. (This is where the oft-read criticism that the film’s characters’, including the lead, are under-developed seems the most justified.) My one criticism is that it felt like in his desire to keep the film mostly contained in Soho, Alan Brown used a short dialog exchange at the very end of the film where he should have shown us the resolution instead. I think he wanted the audience to know
There probably could have been a re-write to resolve this one minor flaw in a more satisfactory manner.
Seeing Chip at the end of 83 minutes
is what the film leaves us with. I understand why some folks will find this slightly unsatisfying.
The audience I was at the theater with seemed to enjoy it as there was that quiet happiness on folks’ faces as we all left the theater.
I left the theater loving the film, but knowing I wanted to wait several days before posting my thoughts here at the HTF in order to see if a few days would have a cooling effect. It hasn't. I am left yearning to be back sitting on dance studio floor warming up my leg muscles while those far more talented and committed than me, men like "David," move about the studio, poetry in motion.
Five Dances will be available on DVD and VOD from Wolfe Video in 2014. Since Brown's last film, Private Romeo, included a commentary track and other bonus features, I am hopeful this will release will, too. As soon as I know, I will update this thread.