Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival: Never a Dull Moment

If you’ve ever sat in the theater watching a dance and wondered how the performers went from working with the choreographer in the studio to being masters of their own movement on the stage, the Emmy award-winning filmmaker Elliot Caplan has made just the documentary for you. It’s called 15 Days of Dance – The Making of Ghost Light. On August 5 at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Caplan spent an hour describing his process and showing an excerpt of his 2010 film. Why just an excerpt? Because 15 Days is 22.5 hours long.

Clearly not a commercial enterprise, 15 Days bears the mark of Caplan’s advanced station as a documentary filmmaker of dance. Like Merce Cunningham, who gave him his first job filming dancers (and whom he served for 15 years as the company’s filmmaker in residence), Caplan records movement from unconventional perspectives. In 15 days, he digs deep into the ritualistic process of—watch, do, repeat, watch, do, repeat—that is the basis for most dance creation. While this process may sound like a snore, it is not. The twelve dancers of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, who are the center of the film, are hothouse flowers. All under age 20, they are schooled within an inch of their life in the rigors of classical technique. It’s fascinating watching them take codified ballet movements (passé, pirouette, penché) and slowly fashion them into the narrative threads that give choreographer Brian Reeder’s Ghost Light its glow.

Wearing a Yankee baseball cap and sitting with Jacob’s Pillow Scholar in Residence Maura Keefe, Caplan demonstrated that he is a devotional dance documenter—and a mensch. While most dance documenters arrive on the scene when the dance is done and paid for, in the case of 15 Days Caplan took the initiative. He convinced the University at Buffalo, where he serves as a professor and the Center for the Moving Image’s artistic director, to foot the bill for the creation of a dance. When Caplan got the funding, he made two calls: to New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. The ABT Studio Company called back first. They recommended for the job the choreographer Brian Reeder, a frequent contributor to the company’s repertoire.

Formerly a dancer with ABT, New York City Ballet, and Ballet Frankfurt, Reeder doesn’t mind being around moving cameras while making a dance in the breathless space of 15 days. His ballet, set to a recording of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theater with Leonard Bernstein conducting, pays homage to the mix of sleaze and innocence redolent of vaudevillian stage culture.

Yet 15 Days isn’t focused on the ballet’s subject or the final product. Caplan documents the job of dancers, working day in and day out in a bare bones studio. In the half-hour segment seen at The Pillow, Caplan creates a near seamless compilation of the 15 days in which the dancers learned Reeder’s material. We see the dance from beginning to the end, but it’s not in a continuous spate of time. At the beginning of the rehearsal process (and the dance), the performers are tentative. Watching them is at times is cringe-making: many of the women have bodies of 12 years olds and their vamping like vaudevillians just doesn’t cut it. Yet by the end of the 15 days (and the end of the ballet), the dancers almost own the material. (And the pixy leg blond, who I noticed most, has acquired just enough je ne sais quoi to deliver a sexy backbend).

Ultimately, this section resembles time-lapse film. As the lithe dancers repeat, absorb, and own Reeder’s choreographic material, it’s like watching petals of an exotic flower opening in slow motion. When the dancers take command of the material, the film blossoms.

You can see three of the 20 segments of Caplan’s epic work on how a dance is created from the ground up by going to 15DaysOfDance.com. It’s worth the trip.

As for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where this free event took place, it is a dance Mecca. Anyone interested in the following—ballet, modern, jazz; Butoh, Flamenco, tap; dance film, dance history, and historical dance sites (the Pillow is a National Historic Landmark)—should make a pilgrimage to Becket, Massachusetts in the Berkshires. It’s only a 20-minute drive from Tanglewood. It’s beyond special. http://www.jacobspillow.org/

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